Friday, 24 July 2009

My Newest Favourite Thing: Cars

My sister has been away for a month, during which time she lent me her car, with the proviso that I pick her and the children up from the airport. I apologise in advance to the environmentally conscious, but it has been wonderful to have a car again.

Now I’m not usually a car person. I will watch Top Gear (although the great journalism, photography and production values have a lot to do with that – not to mention Richard Hammond) but generally a car is just a car, unless it’s an E-type Jag of course.

But the thing with a car is the amazing freedom and independence it can bring. When we moved to Wellington we sold the 4WD – whereas it was very handy on ski-field access roads and back country South Island Southern Traverse type routes, it wasn’t exactly necessary on the streets of the nation’s capital. (Someone really should tell the Khandallah tractor drivers they could negotiate the punishing supermarket car park and school playground in something slightly smaller and less deadly – apart from killing cyclists, why do you need bull bars, exactly?)

Him Outdoors has a vehicle for work and we generally use that. We share a ride to and from work and if I need to go somewhere at any other time, I take the bus or a train. At the weekends we work out who needs it for sport or theatre purposes and if we both need to be somewhere, one of us will use the public transport system or catch a lift with someone else. For shorter trips there are always bikes, or legs.

But with a car, you can go where you like without having to wait on the vagaries of some one else’s timetable and route choice. You don’t waste time waiting at bus stops outside theatres or pubs fretting over being late, and you can leave whenever you want. You can play your own music or listen to the radio (although people do this on buses – the tinny sound of their headphones is only slightly less annoying than those who sing along, usually out of tune, to whatever they are plugged into like some intravenous drip).

When I first starting seeing Him Outdoors I was an impoverished student. He had already been through university and got his degree and a job. He was intelligent, attractive, sporty and amusing. We had similar tastes in music, beer, travel and politics; all of which was terribly important when I was 21. What most impressed my friends about him, however, was that he had his own car (a company car no less). Not only could he buy me a beer, but he could drive me out to a nice country pub to drink it. It was a much-underrated attribute by me, but now I can understand the appeal.

Now my sister has returned (and it’s great to see her again, honestly!) and I’m back on the buses or relying on other people for my transport. It’s like having a sliver of liberty removed and I have to compromise my schedule once more. Cars may well make us selfish (witness the appalling driver-behaviour where normally mild-mannered individuals become self-righteous road hogs) but they are certainly convenient.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Black on black on black

Urban Hymns, (Young and Hungry Festival of New Theatre, 2009)
Bats, July 10 -25

We are told early on that this play is “about power and control”, which is achieved through drugs, music, violence and words, borrowed from poetry and spray-painted onto walls. The play is deliberately confrontational from the very first word – a long, drawn-out expletive. The low-level lighting (Isaac Heron, Nick Chester) is probably also meant to provoke, but rather serves to annoy.

The characters talk the language of high flying businessmen (and they are all men apart from two abused females) with their downsizing, redundancy and bringing it to the marketplace but it transpires they are teenagers pumping petrol and with essays to hand in at school. It is reminiscent of Brick with its enigmatic film noir dialogue placed in the mouths of adolescents: “this town is a desert”, “the windy city had wide horizons”, and “I have the distinct impression that being 16 years old was not to my advantage”.

The extremely slow start saw people shuffling in their seats, and it is apparent that director (Fiona Truelove) is using every tool in the drama student shed. With self-conscious ‘actorly’ movements the characters remain on stage throughout and if they aren’t simultaneously shouting and mumbling through their monologues, they are doing handstands or climbing the edge of the set – at least it is a welcome distraction. My companion said, ‘I’ve never come away from a play where people have writhed against the walls thinking, that was a good play’.

The essay that they mention ad nauseum is about
Hone Tuwhare, which is a particularly clunky motif. Times have evidently changed a lot since I was at school; the ‘cool kids’ were never this interested in poetry, or homework for that matter. The images of ‘we who live in darkness’ and ‘black on black on black’ are emphasised through the crepuscular lighting and the nihilistic attitudes, like Outrageous Fortune but without the wit and humour.

The teen anguish is painfully raw. Blue (Mani Dunlop) says “I don’t understand why but it’s all falling down”. Her brother Isaiah (Benny Marama), who is “not allowed” to touch her (hinting at undercurrents of family violence), just wants to drive somewhere and “get fucked up”. In the best line of the play, Tobias (Cameron Jones) laments, “I’m too young for university, too ugly for a girlfriend, too stupid to drive, too impatient for school – what’s left for me?”

But the one-liners exist in isolation. Either the characters forgot their lines or they simply don’t follow on from each other, and there are a lot of black holes. Two actors who shine are Isaac Heron who plays Lucius the dealer with an even-paced, confident but detached delivery, and Cameron Jones whose edgy hand-clapping finger flicking Tobias was like something out of West Side Story. His mercurial trickery also brings Puck-like characteristics to mind.

The issues within this play which are worth exploring. The oil fields are drying up and petrol will become a precious commodity – it will have great value in the marketplace, is highly explosive and can reduce ideals to smoke. As petrol cans are filled and passed from hand to hand Truelove echoes the food chain motif. Are we all part of something like a community, or just another insignificant link? Blue claims, in Tuwhare’s words that “we are not alone”.

If someone is educated does that mean they have no right to join in the debate? Isaiah tells Blue, “You’re a jumped up rich kid, accept it! Who cares what you have to say?” She counters that she wants to write the words, but not in an essay, which is why she sprays them, “so that every letter stands bigger than you” and “To remind us all about what’s happening out there in this dark, dark world we live in”. If the writing is on the wall and she is leaving her mark, can she be ignored?

Das (Ian Walsh) pushes the mythical dark apart to create a light through music. “The moment I stepped into the music room my world became to ao marama, the world of light. My world became. I became.” It seems rather incongruous that the person who finds a creative outlet from the legendary black is a white Englishman. He delivers a monologue to tell us how he has learned to fly and changed his old destructive ways. As this is a drama, it would be better to demonstrate this through action rather than relying on narrative.

This is an interesting play, but is done a disservice by the production values. Writer Miria George certainly leaves us with a lot to think about – it would be good to be able to become immersed rather than straining to see and hear it.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Arise Sir Freddie

We beat the Aussies! At Lords! There's not a lot more to be said. There I was, dancing round the house at midnight as we won the second test. There are three more to go - the optimist in me says we'll smash 'em bro; the pessimist that we'll play like Wombles.

And then I reckon they'll win the next one, we'll win the one after that, and it will all come down to the final shuddering climactic... draw. Oh, well, we'll take it for now. Great work boys - it was good to watch.
Freddie was the hero of the hour, but they all deserve applause. Take a bow - you've done us proud.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Books read in March

The following are short reviews of the books that I read in March. The marks I have given them in the brackets are out of five.

Gem Squash Tokoloshe – Rachel Zadok (4.3)
Faith is a child growing up on a farm in South Africa. Her father is away on business most of the time and he comes home at the weekends, until he stops coming. Her mother, Bella, fills her head with tales of fairies and bad spirits, who lurk around the house and come out of the paintings, until she is terrified to close her eyes.

Her life is unusual, but she is a resilient child with childish concerns who hates the eponymous gem squash, which are served boiled up for dinner on Sunday night and are supposed to remind Papa that home was the best place to eat. Mary, who used to work on the farm, tells Faith about the tokoloshe, an evil spirit who steals their souls while they sleep because the land they live on doesn’t belong to them.

Not only is the first hint of the deeper apartheid that Faith doesn’t understand, but it naturally gives her nightmares. Bella counters them by telling her that tokoloshe are afraid of gem squash and if she eats enough of them they will protect her. Such inventive stories are appealing until it becomes uncertain as to whether Bella actually believes them herself. With her mysterious father gone, Faith’s mother drifts into madness.

Nomsa is brought in to help about the place, and Faith befriends her, not caring that she is black and that little white girls are shunned when they go to market with their black housekeepers. The child becomes protective of her mother, perverting the natural order of care. Young Faith sees things she should never have to see, as Nomsa is raped and murdered, and her mother is violently abused. But even in these horrific incidents, there is beauty in description.

Faith copes by diminishing herself physically and metaphorically, and she is taken in by her mother’s sister in Johannesburg. She grows up with a brittle personality, constructing a defensive shield out of sex, alcohol and drugs and seems to be heading into the same spiral of madness that saw her mother locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane.

Part two of the novel is fourteen years after the ‘incident’ when her mother dies and leaves Faith the farm. Faith returns to a place full of unreliable memories but sharp evocations of place, where she struggles to remember the events of that fateful night, persuade the hostile black workers living on the farm to work for her, and to become a young secure woman although she feels desperately alone. The first section is the better part of the book, as Zadok captures the youthful voice expertly.

There is a nightmarish quality of fear in this novel. You can almost feel the heat, smell the sharp tang of sweat and taste the metallic texture of dry earth and blood. The cover illustrations by Yoko Ikeno of faintly menacing silhouettes against a glowing orange background are reminiscent of Jan Pienkowski, while the writing reeks of Toni Morrison in spiritual phase. It is disturbing, haunting and achingly beautiful.

Paula Spencer – Roddy Doyle (3.8)
In this novel, we catch up with Paula Spencer, the anti-heroine from The Woman Who Walked into Doors. It’s ten years since that book finished, she hasn’t had a drink for four months and five days, and she’s learning how to be a recovering alcoholic. By trying to control her life and take little steps with small expectations, she is getting through one day at a time and things are slowly getting better. She has learned to be satisfied with the little things, and they really are achingly simple. She is keen on keeping lists because it’s all slipping away, and she is proud of minor advancements, such as remembering to take a bag to the shops.

Paula has to rebuild her relationships with her children and allow them to hate her. She knows she has no right to be a part of their lives and it is genuinely heartbreaking to see how she has hurt them. She can’t dwell on the past or wallow in guilt; she has to accept it and learn to deal with the present. Her daughter, Leanne is a borderline alcoholic and as Paula watches her drink vodka she feels unqualified to comment. She talks about nothing with her, but when Leanne is drunk, they come to blows.

Roddy Doyle’s distinctive style suits the story as he writes credible dialogue with dashes and repetitious short sentences. Silent thoughts are no different from words spoken aloud. Paula Spencer is an immediate novel with contemporary concerns. Roddy Doyle mentions the smoking ban,, Liverpool winning the Champions League Final in Istanbul and Kylie Minogue getting breast cancer.

The setting of this novel may date it but the sentiments won’t. It is bleak at times and absolutely heart-wrenching, but there is hope. You can try and put your life back together. You can emerge from addiction, but you have to accept that you can never go back. There are no easy answers or feel-good flights of fancy in this novel. It’s good, grim and realistic. And it’s short, sharp and painful – Roddy Doyle at his best.

People of the Book – Geraldine Brooks (3.5)
This novel follows the imagined history and developments of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a medieval Jewish prayer book recovered and saved by many people who have risked a lot to preserve it. Now it is in the hands of expert book restorer Hanna Heath, who attempts to understand what, other than its age, makes it so special. As she finds various things within the book, such as a butterfly wing, a wine stain, a white hair or a grain of salt, the reader is transported back to their origins and so we learn the journey of this talismanic book and the characters whose lives were touched by it.

Hanna examines the book from a forensic angle as she gathers evidence about its origins. She tracks the book through Venice, Vienna, Sarajevo, Tarragona and Seville, searching for clues, cracking codes and solving mysteries and riddles en route. I assume, if The Da Vinci Code is anything to go by, that this sort of thing is very popular.

Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for March, but People of the Book is far from high-end literature. The characters are one-dimensional and the dialogue is creaky and unconvincing. Hanna harbours deep competitiveness and resentment towards her mother, who isn’t at all realistic. Hanna herself is not a likeable character, which isn’t a problem per se, but she is arrogant, and guilty of over-explaining to the reader to prove her credentials. She also keeps harping on about her Australian background, which isn’t actually relevant.

The sections featuring Hanna are irritating but they are thankfully interspersed with fictional accounts of times of historical significance in which the Haggadah played a part. The book shadows the Diaspora of the Jews, but there are also similarities with other religions. The novel is fairly simplistic and the religious/political elements are not exactly subtle, but it makes for a good read, nonetheless. I’d recommend it for a holiday book – it will pass the time and it really won’t matter if you leave it on the plane.

The Tenth Circle of Hell – Rezak Hukanović (4.5)
This memoir of life on the death camps of Bosnia argues that Dante was wrong, Hell consists not of nine circles, but of ten. This is the tenth as narrated by Rezak Hukanović, a journalist, radio announcer and poet in the city of Prijedor who survived the Omarska and Manjača camps. He writes of his experiences in the third person, referring to himself as Djemo because he felt that the brutal events he endured and witnessed must have happened to someone else.

In an almost Orwellian nightmare, Bosnians were rounded up by the Serbs in 1992 and sent to prison camps where the ‘guards’ were people with grievances against old neighbours or teachers. At night they called out lists of names of men whom they would beat for no reason. Some returned with broken bones and some never came back at all. It is terrifying how quickly these people turned against each other and how brutal and bestial they became if they scented weakness or a chance for revenge.

The physical agony was bad enough, but the mindless degradation was pervasive.
The prisoners had to hope for outside help or that the guards would recover some humanity. The prisoners themselves attempted to help each other whenever they could, bringing meals to the sick and trying to mend broken bones. While some attempted to remain positive, others simply attempted to remain alive as the sense of hopelessness became routine.

The Tenth Circle of Hell is a powerful but depressing memoir. When we read Primo Levi and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn we shook our head and said we could never let these things happen again. But we did. If these people never forgive each other, the shame is all of ours.