Book Review: Along for the Ride: A Political Memoir, by Tony Simpson

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_along_for_the_ride.jpgTony Simpson is best known for his history and non-fiction writing. This book is a self-published autobiography, more than a memoir. There are many personal aspects and reflections which are interesting, but the personal is not always political.

I will nonetheless treat it as a political memoir, and concentrate on the central chapters. As with other memoirs of those active in politics in recent decades, the earlier years always seem more interesting. Simpson was certainly at, or near, the centre of things in the 1970s, and his lively writing style makes these chapters the most interesting. He certainly encountered some of the political heavyweights of the era, including a perhaps inevitable confrontation with Muldoon, during his time as the ‘man from the wireless’. There is also some reflection on the key figures in his historical works, Jack Lee, and Bill Sutch, of whom he was obviously an admirer.

Following an interesting interlude as a trade unionist in the United Kingdom, and witness to the idiosyncrasies of the royals, it was back to Wellington in time for the Springbok Tour. The chapter on the strange decade of ‘reforms’ in the 1980s is an excellent analysis for the most part, only marred by the reliance on ‘neo-liberalism’ as a description of policy, a term which was not used by contemporaries. In particular, some of the detail on the State Sector reforms and the fundamental change to the public service are well calibrated. Simpson finds his role in the P.S.A. union ever more difficult by the end of the decade, and with unions being unable to confront the 4th Labour Government effectively, given the compliant attitude of the leadership.

There is a certain irony in this view, especially when the boot is on the other foot, once Simpson begins work as a parliamentary strategist. It is rather obvious that he works for Jim Anderton, rather than the Alliance Party, and finds himself trying to control the party members within that want to stand up to the cautious leadership over matters of principle. Once the Alliance implodes he relies on the continuation of Jim’s career. These chapters tend to make for rather less interesting reading, particularly when trying to highlight the policy wins, such as Anderton’s triumphant Kiwibank.

Simpson engages in some historical context for a new State-owned bank which relies more on myth than fact. In particular, he seems to think that the Reserve Bank was set up in 1932, and a devaluation of the new currency was then imposed on an unwilling finance minister, Downie Stewart. In actual fact, the ‘raising of the exchange’ as it was known, took place in early 1933, before the Reserve bank was created in 1934 (the timing of which is significant since the trading banks were directly funding the government up until that time, and they opposed a central bank). Besides being an odd oversight for a historian, it indicates how he links policies to particular individuals. His adherence to the views of Lee and Sutch was not really shared by other historians.

The insider political role ended, Simpson continues on with advocacy, especially as President of the NZSA. Indeed, the chapter on ‘the politics of scribbling’ will be of interest to all those engaged in writing and publishing, if not those making a living from it. Overall, Tony Simpson emerges as a reluctant player, and keen observer, of the New Zealand political scene, and emphasises how it all went wrong in the 1980s.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Along for the Ride: A Political Memoir
by Tony Simpson
Published by Tony Simpson
ISBN  9780473392345


National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen, by Chris Cleave

Apparently Chris Cleave has been on the road promoting his new book, Everyone Brave is Forgiven, since January. On hearing this, I half expected a bedraggled Cleave to front for the keynote speech of our first National Writers Forum: crumpled notes in hand, world-weary and longingly counting down the days until home. Instead, Cleave presented the most calm, thoughtful, and compelling commentary I’ve heard on the current global socio-economic climate and the resulting challenges writers are facing, not just in their work, but also in their lives.

Cleave had obviously done his research. He started with a discussion of New Zealand literature and his experiences with a country that maintains a cultural focus while still having a healthy curiosity for the outward world. New Zealand, Cleave says, “punches well above its weight in literature”, sometimes much to his chagrin, what with all these New Zealand Man Booker Prize wins. Yet, he assures us, he doesn’t hate us.

But hate is on the rise, and the hard right is resurgent. As Cleave so aptly put it: “People are building walls again, and topping them with barbed wire.” And the problem with this hate? It’s catching – and so much more readily compressible; perfectly adapted to the digital medium. Rage has become the fuelling emotion of our era. 

So, in a world filled with viral sound bites of hate, what can writers do to be useful? Cleave detailed a list of five things that writers can do to matter in an Orwellian world of fuelled by “Two Minutes Hate” – I thoroughly recommend that you read this list, along with the full transcript of Chris’s speech, on his website (link below). They’re points that deserve thoughtful reflection, and a pause for breath.

Though I’m sure that all writers and the bookishly inclined will gain something different from Cleave’s list, the one that really stuck with me was number four: tell stories in a world no longer listening to fact. With science, reason and statistical analysis all failing to hold authority in our current political climates, storytellers have become the most powerful change makers. While this is a dangerous and somewhat scary thought, I do find something thrillingly Foucauldian about the idea. That this might be a step towards empowering subjugated knowledges – those low-ranking knowledges embodied and learned through human experience – is comforting in a way that cold, hard facts never could be.

 We live in a storied world. As Cleave puts it: “When we act like human beings we write like human beings. And when we write like human beings, people are drawn to read us.” Evil may be quick, dominating, and seductive; but appealing to humanity – something that writers have always done well – has the power to change this narrative, and to know when it has achieved its purpose.

Read the full transcript of Chris Cleave’s amazing speech here.

Event attended and reviewed by Emma Bryson

National Writers Forum: The Clocks are Striking Thirteen: Chris Cleave