Book Review: Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy, by Paul Horan and Philip Matthews

Available in bookshops nationwide. The TV series is currently screening on Sunday evening and available on TVNZ OnDemand.

Funny_as_four_coversIn Funny As, the book of a new TVNZ series of the same name, Paul Horan and Philip Matthews navigate the chop of New Zealand’s ambivalence towards its own comedy in a way that’s both sober and enthusiastic. They consider ‘New Zealand comedy’ to mean pretty much anything any New Zealander has done since WWI to make another person smile on purpose. The care they have so evidently taken in appraising how New Zealanders execute jokes and japes of every stripe makes this book immediately as essential as such a book can be.

When it comes to assessing the legends of the game, Horan and Matthews deploy a bluntness which is maybe one of the side effects of covering so much history with so few words. Instead of parroting easy, accepted assessments on our giants, they risk throwing in definitive, evaluative statements. Sometimes, they’re damning. The section covering folk legend Barry Crump acknowledges that he was ultimately revealed to be an ‘abusive, violent husband and absent father’ before ending: ‘New Zealand struggled with the information that its best-selling comic writer, yarn-spinner, heroic loner and popular joker was also a monster.’

Not ‘possibility’, or even ‘allegations’. ‘Information’. And that’s their last word on Crump: ‘monster’.

The authors’ ability to take a stand and remain clear-eyed about their subject is one way in which the book distinguishes itself. Talking about the influence of British TV comedians on quintessential joker Billy T. James they write: ‘This style of humour, often reliant on ethnic stereotypes, was long out of date by the time James debuted it on New Zealand television.’

Yes, true. So true in fact it can’t be meaningfully rebuked, and when placed in the context of this chapter, doesn’t diminish the accomplishments of James or sneer at his audience. In fact, the chapter on James deftly manages something that Matt Elliott’s biography Billy T: The Life and Times and Billy T James could not: it meaningfully surveys the comic’s place ‘Between Two Worlds’, engaging with the racial and social tensions around James’ work with seriousness, while never losing sight of what made James such an appealing and popular comedy star. Ultimately, James’s reputation is not undermined by such examination, but enhanced. He beams widely at us from under the famous yellow towel on one of the book’s four covers.

funny as_topp twinsThe other three covers are given to the Topp Twins, Flight of the Conchords and John Clarke. The politics of the Topps are foregrounded, with the words “punk” and “f*ck” deployed as readily as “yodel” and “rural childhood”. The shortish, vital chapter on ‘two women unafraid to express all that they were in a small society that many might have expected would shut them down’ serves them well. It will hopefully send some readers to the superb 2009 documentary Untouchable Girls.

The irony of Flight of the Conchords’ image being used to sell a book from a TVNZ series will not be lost on their fans. Theirs is already a story for the history books it seems. An unlikely one, to be sure, but it now apparently belongs to the whole bloody lot of us. And seeing posters I used to drink cheap wine under in dank Wellington flats lovingly reproduced in a coffee table book is just the price of growing up, I suppose. (Their friend and collaborator Taika Waititi, about as perfect a synthesis of New Zealand comedy as you could wish for, gets his own chapter.)

The recently departed John Clarke acts a kind of spiritual guide for the project, with Horan and Matthews stating early on that they have followed his ‘firm dictum that there is no such thing as a distinct New Zealand sense of humour’. Such observance to the teachings of Chairman Fred could have resulted in bloodlessness in the hands of some acolytes, but Clarke’s intelligence, passion and sense of fairness are qualities the writers evidently admire and seek to emulate.

A black and white still from Clarke’s appearance with Hudson and Halls is generously given two pages, and the caption informs that this picture is ‘[a]ll that remains’ of the event. It’s one of the many times when a sense of loss is invoked in the reader (OK, this reader) without any forceful tugging on the nostalgia strings.

If it’s nostalgia you’re after, though, just flick through the thing for the photographs and the reproductions of posters and flyers. Aside from Clarke, Hudson & Halls and the Conchords, there are also full-page reproductions of gorgeous Red Mole and Front Lawn posters, Rosemary McLeod cartoons from The Listener, theatre posters for Jean Betts’ Revenge of the Amazons and Roger Hall’s Glide Time, John Key on Letterman, Arthur Baysting as Neville Purvis and a promotional card for Debbie Dorday’s Auckland cabaret club, Burgundy’s. Yep. Because this book sees comedy as a broad church. Both Mika and David Low are here, and deserve to be. Children’s television, and youth television like Havoc and IceTV, are also given their due. When you think about it, they really are part of the story. Thank god we’re a small enough country that we can see how connected it all is. By canvassing everything that could come under the banner of ‘comedy’, Horan and Matthews have, perhaps unwittingly, gone against Clarke and made a case for a ‘distinct New Zealand sense of humour’. But it’s not entirely what we may have been conditioned to think it is. Instead of “self-deprecating” and “laconic”, how about we describe it as “inclusive”, “adaptable”, “intelligent” and “multi-lingual” a little more often?

Because so much has been included in this book, I’ll just say that if you think it’ll be in here it probably is: McPhail and Gadsby, the Hori books, Seven Days, commercial radio, Funny Business, ‘Melody Rules’, BLERTA, Jono and Ben, Allen Curnow, Hen’s Teeth, Back of the Y, the showbands, Lyn of Tawa (who gave us – get this for precise, economic writing – ‘a complete, imaginary folklore of New Zealand life at its most ordinary’), and Samoan comedy in New Zealand, which is given a chapter of its own. The book is so packed it begs to be called ‘definitive’, but anyone interested in comedy is going to be peeved something they like has been left out. Given the scope of the book, I would have liked to seen Jonathan and Dane, Binge Culture, the Fan Brigade, Mrs. Peacock and Joseph Harper get some space, but when Frickin’ Dangerous Bro, Jo Randerson, Snort, Tom Sainsbury and half the Aucklanders I follow on Twitter are all present and correct… well I’m hardly going to lodge a formal complaint.

We have reached a point where the story of our comedy has become one worth reading and telling. Horan and Matthews have written right up to the minute, and though Rose Matafeo’s success at Edinburgh in 2018 is a fitting peak to rest the flag in for now, it’s clear we’re going to continue finding new ways of knocking this comedy bastard off. If the TV series lives up to its tie-in product, it’ll be an absolute cracker. And if it doesn’t… well it’s always nice to see that ‘Where’d I get my bag?’ joke on the telly.

Reviewed by Jonny Potts

Funny As: The Story of New Zealand Comedy
by Paul Horan and Philip Matthews
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869409005

Book Review: Social Science Research in New Zealand: An Introduction, edited by Martin Tolich and Carl Davidson

Available in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_social_science_research_in_NZThis is a very useful multi-authored collection that covers many aspects of social science research, but mostly from an academic perspective. The editors are both sociologists, and they appear to have already written a number of other books on the subject. However, Davidson has worked in the public sector and there is also an emphasis on applied social science research and policy analysis.

The focus is both very specific on methods for qualitative and quantitative analysis of empirical data, but also includes examples of research from academics and writers who are not, strictly speaking, social scientists. Indeed, apart from the study of Sociology there remains a small question of what exactly is ‘social science’. Students from across the humanities disciplines will gain from reading the book, but only some post-graduates will actually get to create their own empirical research projects.

Another way of putting the problem is that, if social science is defined broadly, it is rather obvious that most graduates will not get jobs as social scientists. The only positions as researchers appear to be in some government departments, unless one includes the type of public surveys that one of the authors is involved in for the private sector. Early in the introductory chapter the editors include a position statement from a former departmental official (now deceased) about what is required to be a policy analyst. In this she effectively states that social science methodology is only for academics.

The particular point about policy analysis was that it mixed up qualitative and quantitative methodology as required, depending on the policy problems to be solved, but also that the methodological distinction has no particular meaning. Yet, the authors maintain that there is a distinction which aligns with significant logics, based on inductive or deductive approaches. The deductive logic is aligned with quantitative analysis; and inductive logic involved the qualitative analysis of empirical material. The idea seems to be that the latter allows for theories to be tested once a qualitative assessment has been made; whereas deductive research begins from a strict form of research design in which a statistically significant sample of evidence is deemed to be important.

It is rather difficult to maintain this distinction between inductive and deductive research, especially given that so few academics really get their students to create formal empirical research projects. Most postgraduate research involves the student beginning with a literature review, based on international theories, and then adding some empirical material from published sources to buttress a preferred theoretical position. In other words, most academic research is deductive in logic, but based on pre-determined theoretical positions that academic supervisors expect students to follow.

But despite my misgivings about the content of the early chapters, there are still some significant approaches that are examined, and things to consider when any new empirical research is being considered. One of the most interesting is the chapter on research ethics by Lindsay McDonald, which refers to the study of the Canterbury earthquakes. Any participants in a research project, and particularly those who have experienced trauma, need to be clearly consenting to be in the project and especially if they can be identified in any way. Of course, there are many examples of health related research that has not had participants who have even been informed, let alone consented to being involved. Another aspect of research ethics can be seen via Jarrod Gilbert’s ethnographic fieldwork on gangs. It’s rather hard to see how to get ethical approval to participate in certain gang activities, just to maintain their trust: especially when it involves brawling with Russian sailors.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Social Science Research in New Zealand: An Introduction
Edited by Martin Tolich and Carl Davidson
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408848

Book Review: Sport and the New Zealanders: A History, by Greg Ryan & Geoff Watson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_sport_and_the_new_zealandersThis book traces the history of sport in New Zealand, and it covers most of the recorded history of the country, including an initial chapter for the pre-1840 era. It is also a book written by two academics, rather than sports journalists or fans. This does not really affect how it reads, but there are 40 pages of endnotes at the back. And it seems that sport has been the topic of significant scholarship within the universities.

It is certainly well-written and will be of interest to any sports enthusiasts in New Zealand that want a long read. However, the authors do place their story within an academic context, and the historiography of the wider society, which results in an emphasis on the early years. So anyone expecting a lot of detail on recent professional sportspeople will actually find the balance tipped back towards the amateur era. The book is very much a social history of sport, followed by an assessment of the effects of the commercialism of sport, and societal change on the mass participation in sport.

It has to be said that much of the focus of the authors is upon the development of rugby union, even though many sports are weaved into the narrative. This can be justified on the idea that rugby is the ‘national game’, and has the broadest range of participants in terms of town and country. It certainly has the most popular depth, and therefore commercial appeal. And it has developed over time, as we witness the increased participation of urban Pasifika players, and the rise of the women’s game. But inevitably the sporting links with South Africa have to be covered, and the 1981 Springbok Tour examined, especially as other sports had a temporary moment in the limelight. Questions remain over whether one dominant sport is helpful to the others.

While the text moves into the emphasis on commercialised sport and the elite level, there is another perspective provided by the photographic plates. All of these are presented well in black and white, and the most recent is from the 1980s (apart from two cartoons). The research for these photos in the archives has provided an emphasis on the participation of ordinary folk, with a few elite national representatives from yesteryear. The only downside is that the participants are mostly unknown, and the places are sometimes vague as well. The photo for the cover is also a curious choice: an unknown weightlifter at the Petone Recreation Ground, circa 1956. There seems to be no weightlifter mentioned in the text, even for the 1974 Commonwealth Games.

The captions can also be misleading: e.g. the one of the ‘football supporters’ holding a banner at the national team’s triumphant win over China in 1982. The supporters are obviously two of the actual players, sans their shirts, namely Adrian Elrick and the especially hirsute Bobby Almond. Almond, like many of the other immigrant team members (and coaches), still retained the broad regional accents of their home country. And with this came a different sporting culture, one that was still foreign.

Indeed, the comments of the authors on the development of football in New Zealand are tentative, and somewhat inaccurate. They point to the lack of an effective national administration, and middle class participation, as well as an emphasis on the clubs. When referring to the club known as ‘Stop Out’, they misleadingly state that it was created in Te Aro (Wellington), when it has always been based out in Lower Hutt. It is possible to quibble with such details, but the book is still a very good overview.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Sport and the New Zealanders: A History
by Greg Ryan & Geoff Watson
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408831

Book Review: He’s so MASC, by Chris Tse

Available now in bookshops nationwide. 

‘This is my blood oath with myself: the only
dead Chinese person I’ll write about from now on
is me.’

cv_hes_so_mascSo writes Chris Tse in his poem, Punctum. And this quote is the first thing I find in the blurb of He’s so MASC after flipping over the dazzling cover. If you’re familiar with Tse’s debut poetry collection, How to be Dead in a Year of Snakes, which revisited the murder of Cantonese goldminer Joe Kum Yung, then you know how incredibly potent this single sentence is.

Tse’s promise to be personal involves exploring a variety of identities. In doing so, Tse brings visible light onto invisible minorities. In Punctum, he describes a Chinese girl ‘behind the counter being bullied into saying “fried rice”‘. Here, she thinks about her own bleak future; she knows that there is no career progression for her unless she marries her boss’s son.

And what about her children? They could be actors taking on different identities, from a pregnant teen goth to a simple restaurateur. But even as Tse spins out all these possibilities, these are still simply acts. Even if her children do take on new identities, they will never be removed from the race they were born with; race is the first thing that others will see and judge them against accordingly. She knows that when she dies, she’ll be left wondering whether she pushed her children ‘hard enough to never settle / for being the token Asian in a crowd scene’. And when Tse asks, ‘Can you see her?’ at the end of the piece, it is evident that the answer is nothing close to yes. She, like many other minorities, is only a small little dot. A punctum.

All throughout He’s so MASC, Tse plays with this idea of personal identity, and the influence of the identities we carry. In Performance—Part 2, Tse goes through a variety of characters, who are all belittled in some way because of their identity. He starts with ‘CHRIS TSE AS DELETED SCENE’, who tells us that he didn’t have the ‘right look / to play a New Zealander’ even though he sounds like a native speaker. The next character is written in a way that speaks volumes. Tse simply states: ‘CHRIS TSE AS ASIAN HITMAN #1: / (non-speaking part)’.

Tse also delves into the personal in a tender and precious way. In the poem Next year’s colours, Tse ponders why we take photos while travelling, and how our phones end up filling up with photos that once meant something. He portrays the desperation of recording memories when in new places. Another tender poem is Release, which explores the emotions that come with letting go of a lover. The piece is so gentle, even if it’s about heartbreak, and Tse portrays each moment with such clarity. Especially moving is a verse where Tse describes himself going through the motions of the day, and then at last:

returning home to

duvet, sheets and pillows

hastily abandoned

and finally finding the time

to cry.’

In He’s so MASC, Chris Tse takes an oath to explore the personal. As well as exploring the emotions that come with memories and growth, his poems make you reconsider the layers of identity that you hold true. They also make you consider the identities that you appropriate onto others, and the ones that they appropriate onto you.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

He’s so MASC
by Chris Tse
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408879

 

 

Book Review: Vanishing Points, by Michele Leggott

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_vanishing_pointsVanishing Points is a poetry collection that brings a unique perspective to visual art. The collection itself is divided into eight parts, my favourite being a section titled ‘Self-Portrait: Still Life. A Family Story.’ In this section, Leggott depicts two different paintings in an exhibition, hanging opposite each other. The way Leggott describes each piece of art is a whirlwind of description that is incredibly evocative, even without the presence of the physical paintings themselves. It feels like Leggott herself is the artist, creating brush strokes as she moves from describing the background of the painting to the foreground, and then to smaller details.

When Leggott describes one of the paintings in a poem titled still life: self-portrait with lacewing, she starts by portraying the sunlit view of ‘swimmers no bigger than dots’. She then moves through a set of French doors and into a domestic scene before pinpointing even smaller details, such as flour and pink dough upon a table. Leggott presents a beautifully precise description of the scene. She describes how ‘pink stars are arranged on a baking tray to one side and the leftover dough shows the negative field of stars’. Leggott then picks out other details within the home: an apron, a measuring tape, a full-skirted sundress.

These details reappear throughout other poems in this section. Leggott delves deeper into the world of the painting by describing the possible life of the woman who inhabits it. She depicts a woman who is a creator, ‘a composer, an arranger, a sculptor of the bright air and light permeating surfaces visible and invisible’. She is also a woman who plans to bake pink stars and wear a new dress on Christmas Day.

Finally, Leggott turns to her own experience of these paintings. She talks about how these two pieces of art were part of an exhibition by Elva Bett. ‘I have no recollection of Elva Bett’s show’, Leggott tells us, but she knows that she must have been brought there. This is because she finds the exhibition as a diary entry in her mother’s journal. In this way, Vanishing Points talks about art while being a piece of art itself. These poems not only describe the paintings themselves, but they also portray the lives and experiences surrounding these paintings.

However, a wide array of images can also be overwhelming. In the final section of Leggott’s collection, ‘Figures in the Distance’, Leggott continuously puts forward one image after another. Some images are well connected enough to keep the piece flowing at a steady pace, allowing each image to take its turn in the spotlight. However, other images clashed and culminated to the point that they ended up creating clutter.

Nevertheless, Vanishing Points is a beautiful and unique collection of poetry that looks at visual art through the art of poetry itself. In the collection, Leggott also explores scenes captured through photographs and describes memories surrounding her father’s paintings and drawings. Using poetry as her lens, Leggott is able to reveal the other facets, interpretations, and lives that can be found within art.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Vanishing Points
by Michele Leggott
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408749

 

Book Review: Tightrope, by Selina Tusitala Marsh

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_tightropeSelina Tusitala Marsh is well known for being the 2016 Commonwealth Poet, an honour that involved writing a poem and performing it for the Queen at Westminster Abbey. Marsh also includes this poem in Tightrope. Titled ‘Unity’, this piece is a smooth poem that captures ideas of inclusivity. Marsh beautifully writes how ‘though 53 flags fly for our countries / they’re stitched from the fabric of our unity’. Throughout the poem, Marsh further explores this idea, repeating the phrase ‘There’s a ‘U’ and an ‘I’ in unity / costs the earth and yet it’s free’.

Marsh then follows this poem with other afterthoughts of the event. One of these poems is named ‘Pussy Cat’, where Marsh’s personality and identity stands strong. She paints a beautiful and vivid image of herself in the scene, talking about how ‘I frightened the Western world with my big hair… My moana blue Mena… My blood red lips / My Va philosophising / My poetic brown hips’. She wonderfully ends the poem by reiterating the theme of her previous poem, ‘Unity’. Here, she states, ‘Inverting West is Best / Instead drawing a circle / Encompassing all the rest’.

Marsh also explores other ways of describing identity. In the poem ‘Led by Line, Marsh portrays identity as something formed by several different factors. She tells how ‘We are led by line / blood line love line land line… when out of line / with the colonial line’, and how these lines—some part of us, some imposed upon us—make up our identity. Marsh then goes on to describe how we craft that identity by realigning and ‘drawing our line in the sand’. We must navigate what we ourselves feel is true. In doing so, we walk the tightrope of all these lines.

In the poem ‘Explanation of Poetry to My Immigrant Mother, Marsh also wonderfully portrays the joys of writing. She starts with describing the forms that a poem can take, how a poem can feel like ‘the kids’ lucky dip bin / love, grief, rage wrapped in headlines’. And then Marsh tells how a poem can also be a passport and send you to new places. She describes how a poem ‘can transit the likeness of you from New Lynn / to Niutao… can launch you across lined waters / where in another country / you find yourself / home’.

Throughout Tightrope, Marsh also included several black out poems. Black out poetry involves blacking out existing words and, in doing so, bringing out certain words and thus creating a new text. As well as being simple and sweet, Marsh’s black out pieces created a nice interlude between longer works. Using Albert Wendt’s novel Pouliuli, Marsh finds various parts of poetry within this broader context. One poem implores, ‘wake up Samoa and bring a New Zealand storyteller a pen’. Another declares, ‘discover the question recognise how to follow’.

I loved the fierceness and strength that Marsh invokes through her writing in Tightrope. Her recognition of identity and the multiple lines that create it is especially crucial in an ever-changing world. Marsh’s own pride is a stunning facet of her identity, and it shows through in her poetry.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Tightrope
by Selina Tusitala Marsh
Published by AUP
ISBN 9781869408725

Book Review: Night Horse, by Elizabeth Smither

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_night_horseElizabeth Smither is a well-known figure in New Zealand poetry, and Night Horse proves again why this is so. In her eighteenth collection of poetry, Smither portrays an enchanting world by shining moonlight on the quirks of everyday life.

In this collection, Smither shows how skilfully she can render moments into soft and beautiful scenes. In the poem Wedding Car, she brings out the image of a 1926 Nash / in deep forest green’ driving down the road. Throughout the poem, Smither portrays a number of other blushed and brilliant images, as if the world were on pause: wheelspokes that ‘measured each revolution like time’, a bouquet, white ribbons in the wind. Finally, Smither states that ‘though, today, someone else will ride in it / you are both still there’. There are many layers to one moment, and the memory that Smither is recalling is just one of them.

Further on in the collection, Smither heightens this dreamy atmosphere into something eerie. In the poem Cat Night, she starts with a normal scene: cats walking through the street after the sun has set, ‘waiting to see how the night will shape itself’. There is something peculiar in this little description of suburbia. And at the end of the poem, Smither wonderfully declares ‘Let the street lights mark / the great promenade down which love will come / like black carriages on the Champs-Élysées’. Here, the everyday has been turned into something grand and enchanting.

Smither finds other peculiar moments in ordinary life. In the poem Oysters, she portrays a seemingly normal scene: a banquet table filled with food. But in this world, things morph and become strange. Standing out from the selection of food are six dozen oysters in a champagne bucket. After the oysters have been devoured, Smither draws out the uncomfortable image of ‘thin oyster lips’ and smiles, turning this moment into a scene that feels much more uneasy than a regular gathering.

My favourite poem in Night Horse is the final poem in the collection. From the title of the piece, Smither tells us that ‘The heart heals itself between beats’, and this anchoring phrase continues throughout the poem. She sets the scene in Middlesex Hospital, the bustle of doctors around her. It is in the chapel that Smither finds some quiet, watching as matrons and surgeons go about their duties. While she meanders, she also wonders about the heart and how it heals itself. She thinks, maybe each cell proposes a soliloquy to itself and speaks’. And then, in the final line, Smither beautifully concludes ‘The heart heals itself between beats / I heal myself between beats’.

Night Horse is a wonderful collection where each poem brings something new and unexpected. Smither perfectly captures an atmosphere that is dreamy and magical, yet also eerie. Her poems are the kind of pieces that will make you take a second glance at things in life that once seemed ordinary—statues in a park, a cat prowling through the streets—so you can stand for a moment and wonder what worlds they have seen.

Reviewed by Emma Shi

Night Horse
by Elizabeth Smither
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408701