Downtown voices and sugar-rush diction, David Cohen

The Journal of Urgent Writing 2016
Nicola Legat (ed)
Massey University Press, $40.00,
ISBN 9780994130068

Tell You What 2017: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 
Susanna Andrew and Jolisa Gracewood (eds)
Auckland University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9781869408602

If I had to name the publishing roles I would hate to hold, the list would go on for a long time. All such jobs can be a drag: they are stressful and frustrating and too often end in failure. Yet, at the top of my list would be commandeering a collection of halfway decent New Zealand essays  – long-form journalism, enduring non-fiction, creative piecework, call them what you will – for general consumption. A challenging task in the most sophisticated international markets, it becomes a headache of the first order in New Zealand, where the form arrived relatively late and may yet, in these cash-strapped mainstream media times, depart early. And one is also certainly booked for an argument with Bob or Belinda from accounts, over whether to take the more cost-efficient route of trawling material that has already seen the light of published day, or commissioning new work from scratch.

The Journal of Urgent Writing plumps for the latter. Its editor, Nicola Legat, a one-time magazine chief turned publishing executive, has never been much into recycling old rope. Besides, this is intended to be a journal in the academic sense, too; “republish or perish” isn’t really a scholarly option. On Legat’s watch, the Massey University Press has also been undergoing a period of expansion – it recently partnered with Te Papa Press – as it looks to cut a bigger presence in a university field until recently dominated by Victoria and Auckland, with the fierce urgency of now.

The journal weaves together 20 “whip-smart” pieces by the likes of established downtown voices, alongside a coterie of hopefully cool academics whose ideas might play out just as well at the local bookstore as they do in the faculty lounge. Thus, the pundit David Slack, melancholically observing his glide into the 50s, casts an eye in the rear-view, sorrowing over lost dreams, the graceful descent of his parents into old age and, a touch oddly, the fiscal rectitude of Singapore. At times, Slack flirts with being the drudge in the garret who uses the passing of a golden age to accent his own high principle, but, mostly, it’s a supple example of the popular style.

On the other side of the coin, the political scientist Richard Shaw riffs on the apathy of young voters. Claire Robinson, a professor of communication design, homes in on older women showing off their hard-earned sagacity by celebrating their shades of gray. Environmental concerns of one sort or another are the focus of several other eggheads. And Jarod Gilbert, one of the few non-Massey scholars, is sensationally good on the jejunely mindless debate that typically sullies our country’s public conversation about crime and punishment. All of them are good, in fact, even if a couple of lighter pieces here wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Not surprisingly, identity politics is earnestly to the fore, too, sometimes with a bit of needless strain – as, for instance, with Ridvan Firestone pressing into service the bawdy old equation of culture and food. “When Pasifika people interact socially at informal and formal events,” she writes, “it’s guaranteed that food will be the marker of the success of that interaction.” But, really, when you think about it, isn’t food also the marker of social success whenever New Zealanders of any ethnicity gather? Firestone goes on to turn in a lot of valuable insights about obesity issues within her own community. Unfortunately, perhaps, she passes over the scandalous role New Zealand has played in dumping fat products on her native Samoa, thus guaranteeing that almost everyone of a certain age is destined to have some kind of personal dialogue with diabetes.

The Auckland University Press anthology aims a little lower and, like the Massey volume, is frustrating for not having an index. As with the previous couple of non-fiction collections with the same title from the same publisher, Tell You What packages together existing pieces chosen for their hopefully durable sheen. A “decisive slice from a luxurious longlist” of the past year, Susanna Andrew’s and Jolisa Gracewood’s introduction gushes, and if the length of the wordy contributor notes at the back is anything to go by, it’s very decisive indeed. Actually, a fast computer search through local media and blog offerings suggests their potential list isn’t really all that long or luxurious. It probably hasn’t been that way since the popular essay made its first journalistic appearance back in the 1980s in the glory days of Metro, which both Andrew and Gracewood still write for. Spurious dignity, sugar-rush diction and a relentless inability or unwillingness of writers to reveal themselves abound.

That way goes television reporter Ali Ikram’s sewing together a few old newspaper columns for this new volume. One of them recalls an encounter with a naked man in a swimming pool changing room, “his penis swinging in its thick pubic nest” as he revealed himself (“his appendage bob[bing] at the edge of my peripheral vision”) to be “something of a fan” of the current affairs show Campbell Live. Perhaps this was hilarious when it first appeared. But Campbell Live is long gone, hardly anybody under 50 watches television any more, and the tosh telling of this whole interlude basically feels like a slap in the face to the trees that were hacked to death to preserve its telling in 2017.

Narrative technique. Tell You What opens to blogger David Haywood quoting from a playground conversation he had with a fellow parent some years ago.  Their exchange was apparently quite long, turning as it did on the Norwegian concept of høstens vemod, or a pensive melancholy for the past, which Haywood then folds into a broader fatherhood theme. Somehow, he manages to recall every word. How do people manage to regurgitate such dialogue verbatim? Many of us can’t even remember what we said to each other this morning, and, if we do, it’s usually a good idea to let the reader know how we pulled it off; it’s what the American writer Paul Auster calls the sacred pact of the memoirist.

Still, høstens vemod pops up a lot in this collection – in Talia Marshall’s eloquent search for an ancestral place to stand on this bruised earth, in the gifted Adam Dudding on his mother’s neurological malady, in Amber Easu’s reveries of growing up in a “house without walls” in Samoa. It’s also in a wistful article Charlotte Grimshaw wrote last April for The Spinoff, and here again the perils of a fast edit are on display. The piece is about a ceremony Grimshaw attended in Hawke’s Bay, honouring a new poet laureate, her father, Karl Stead – a sweet theme. Later that same day, she writes: “there was a public poetry reading at the Function Centre in the town. The Laureate read an early poem, ‘Pictures in a Gallery Undersea.’ I heard T S Eliot in it. It was unmistakably a homage to ‘The Wasteland’. ”

Well, sure, maybe it was, but the title of Eliot’s strobe-lit classic is The Waste Land, not ‘The Wasteland’, and this apparently Thomistic distinction is kind of important. It’s important because the title is a specific allusion to the myth about infertility in Jessie Weston’s From Ritual to Romance, and it’s important because that’s what Eliot jolly well called his poem. Grimshaw is the daughter of an Eliot scholar. How can she not be aware of this? Or her earlier editor? Or the editors of this collection? Do these people “wash their feet in soda water”?

Which isn’t to say a great many of the pieces didn’t deserve another airing, in particular Rosabel Tan’s splendid appreciation from 2015 of the dearly departed television chefs Peter Hudson and David Halls. I had forgotten how unfortunate a few of Hudson’s and Halls’s recipes were. It was nice to be reminded that they were the country’s first gay couple to become national celebrities. I never knew Halls overdosed on his partner’s morphine pills, and his body was found in the London apartment they shared, with a photograph of Hudson held tightly in his hand, and I never would have guessed how moving an account of that event could be. That’s the way the best essays work.

David Cohen is a Wellington author and essayist. 

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