It is with great sadness that I write a tribute to one of New Zealand’s best cartoonists.
Murray Ball (26 January 1939 – 12 March 2017) was from my home town, Feilding. Stanway I’m pretty sure, or at least Halcombe. Proud as punch they are – because he also made the All Blacks.
Murray Ball was someone who made us laugh, love, dream, and curse the Nor’ Wester. He brought great characters to life in Wal, The Dog, Horse, Cooch, Cheeky Hobson, and many others besides.
I’ve always been into comics. Footrot Flats is a love I share with my Dad. I remember collecting the annuals to add to our collection. We all went to the movie. A friend of mine walked down the aisle to “Slice of Heaven.” Lol.
Murray’s cartoons and characters addressed pivotal moments and issues in our history – the Springbok Tour coming to mind – rugby being very close to Ball’s heart. I still have the clipping from the Manawatu Evening Standard, when the Dog wrote in to say he was hanging up his All Black Jersey.
It’s 1940 and the Chilbury village men, young and old alike, are called upon to fight to defend their heritage and their immediate future.
The Vicar leaves a note on the church noticeboard stating that ‘As all our male voices have gone to war, the village choir is to close’. This high-handed attitude rattles on the remaining but suddenly defunct females of the choir. Action has to be taken and it is …
The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is the result and a few prominent members of both choir and village are prompted to divulge their thoughts, actions, and emotions through correspondence – letters are written; journals are jotted in and generally, the fictional village of Chilbury and its occupants, are brought to life in what is a very uncertain and frightening time.
I debated whether I wanted to read about an all-female choir but it was essentially the ‘glue’ that held all the characters together and propelled the sub-plots along within the main storyline.
Blackmail, black marketeering, village hierarchy and social status combined with a healthy dollop of romance all play a part in the unfolding drama but it is the diverse female characters – young and old – who symbolise what mental and physical reserves of strength were required to survive yet another German invasion when still experiencing the effects of the previous one some twenty years ago.
I especially warmed to the precocious but somewhat naïve 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop who starts a diary as a result of an announcement on the wireless that ‘keeping a diary in these difficult times is excellent for the stamina’. Her entries are funny, optimistic, deluded and very in keeping with an adolescent who feels she has a very old head on youthful shoulders when, in fact, her inability to understand the subtleties of life, make it both sad and funny at the same time.
As touted on the cover of Spontaneous, this is “A novel about growing up… and blowing up” – and it didn’t disappoint. I love a good YA read and this one caught my attention from the outset as I pondered the outrageous thought of teenagers spontaneously blowing up in front of their classmates.
Initially I felt a bit like I was peeking into a world that wasn’t my own. It was something akin to looking at my daughter’s Facebook or Twitter account and reading things I either didn’t know – or didn’t want to know – about her life. So I take my hat off to Aaron Starmer for realistically getting inside a teenage girl’s head. I might also add that at this point I am fervently hoping that my 15 going on 16 year old daughter’s life bears little resemblance to Mara’s. Hey! – I can live in my happy naïve little world – it’s fun here!
Thankfully this feeling didn’t last and I was pulled in by my need to know ‘why’. Now I won’t say that why kids were blowing up was answered to my satisfaction as the ‘why’ became more of a side story to the ‘how we live with this and don’t let it define us’ one.
Spontaneous takes the reader on a quite personal journey with Mara Carlyle as her classmates start blowing up randomly and her life changes as they all become the centre of much speculation and trepidation from the community and country at large. But what happens when this anomaly doesn’t differentiate between friend or enemy? And how do you stay sane when you don’t know who is going to be next or if you will have to suffer the horror of witnessing yet another classmate spontaneously exploding? This is the challenge that Mara and her graduating class have to work through while trying to hang on to even the smallest amount of normality to keep them grounded.
Now despite the obvious serious aspect of Spontaneous, it is written in quite a light-hearted way. My favourite bit of levity would have to be the ‘hang in there, we’re with you’ pep talk from the President of the United States – I’m still chuckling just thinking about it, so watch out for this one!
I did end up quite enjoying this book but I also think that any teenager will find it infinitely more relateable than I did. There’s plenty of swearing, raging hormones and a distinct lack of need for adult supervision. A teenager’s dream come true, really.
by Aaron Starmer
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
I’d be willing to bet cold, hard cash that of all the writers who took part in WORD Christchurch this year, Steve Hely is the only one who has “actor: flautist and shirtless bohemian, The Office (US)” on their CV. Assuming that he does, in fact, even have that on his CV… and if not, why?
He’s also one of those annoying people who are intelligent, funny, and interested in lots of things and therefore make the rest of us feel bad with their rampant overachieving.
In addition to having worked on some of the best comedy shows EVER (in addition to The Office and 30 Rock, there’s American Dad and chaotic political comedy Veep – pretty sure those are on the CV), he also does a podcast, The Great Debates, in which he argues passionately about the big questions in life… such as whether dogs should be allowed on the beach.
He’s also written several books. His novel “How I became a famous novelist” is a satire of the literary world (and somewhat awkwardly, given the context of this talk, literary festivals).
His two non-fiction efforts are both travel books, of a kind. The first, The Ridiculous Race, documents the competition he and friend Vali Chandrasekaran undertook to travel around the world, in opposite directions, without air travel. First one back to Los Angeles won. The second follows him on his trip down the west of the South American continent, right down to Tierra del Fuego at the southern end of Chile.
On Comedy writing
Toby Manhire started out asking him quite a few questions about the process of television comedy writing*, and how it differed between shows like Late Night with David Letterman and 30 Rock.
Letterman had much more of a factory approach where people worked independently like “12 monkeys at 12 typewriters”, which answers the question “if infinite monkeys on infinite typewriters will eventually produce Shakespeare, what will a drastically smaller number get you?” A Letterman top ten list, is the answer.
Sitcoms, according to Hely are a more collaborative kind of environment, though being employed as a writer on a show that is already hugely successful is pretty intimidating. Of his arrival at 30 Rock, says Hely “I was a scared little puppy trying to help out”.
Inspiration can come from anywhere. Great television writers have a magpie-ish ability to retain “something weird, some odd sentence that someone said to them” and turn that into a gag or even a whole episode. There is also such a thing as “riffing” for comedy writers though it’s “embarrassing to talk about compared with guitar music because it’s less cool, but it is, in a way, similar to how music is made”.
With regards to his forays into sitcom acting, it was definitely useful, as a writer, to have that experience, to be able to understand what it’s like for the actors.
“The feeling of being an actor is terrifying and strange.
And in a long-running show like The Office, the actors have spent more time with their characters than many of the writers have so “you’re wise to listen to the actors’ ideas about their characters.”
Hely admits to a certain kind of wanderlust and feels that travel breaks a person out of the routine ways of doing things, creating a certain kind of heightened awareness. Where will I get food? Where will I sleep?
“It really makes you feel alive”.
He’s also interested in the whole genre of travel writing – the history of going somewhere and reporting back on it, from Herodotus to Mark Twain (another American writer who has visited Christchurch, by the way).
There are examples of this interest in The Wonder Trail, which in certain chapters feels like a meta-travel book (a travel book about travel books) when Hely documents the history of what what travellers of old have made of the place that he’s visiting in the present, which allows you the perspective of seeing what has changed (or not) in the meantime. It’s an amusing, enlightening, and informative read, whether you’ve any interest in travelling to South America yourself or not, there’s plenty to keep you reading.
On Trump, Clinton and Sir Edmund Hilary
There’s no denying it, things have gotten weird. Or as Hely puts it “that satire is being outpaced by reality is alarming”. Er, yes, it is rather.
Hely is in a good position to say just how alarming as he got press credentials for and attended the Republican National Convention. He found it “upsetting”, though in the wake of Ted Cruz not endorsing Trump it felt “like a pro-wrestling match – I enjoyed the chaos of that”.
A lot of Trump’s political success, he believes, is “because politicians are boring”… as they should be – “I want boring people working on policy,” he says.
Trump is woefully unprepared for the job.
“His plans for being president don’t seem like those of someone who thought about being president for more than an hour…”
Whereas Hillary Rodham Clinton has probably been thinking about being president “since the second grade”. This is not to say that he’s necessarily a fan of HRC. In fact he thinks she’s very cavalier with the truth, going so far as to call her “chronically dishonest”.
An amazing example of this was the time she claimed to have been named after our own Sir Edmund Hilary. Later fact-checking revealed that Clinton was born years before Sir Ed and Sherpa Tensing reached the summit of Mt Everest. So why lie? Did she even really claim that? Was it a joke that got misreported? If not had she just, as Hely put it “wigged out” and made it up, or did someone in her family tell her it was true and she believed it?
We know from audience member (and veteran political cartoonist) Peter Bromhead, who knew Sir Ed and spoke with him about this very topic, that Clinton certainly did relate the story as fact and that the man himself had believed it to be true initially. As to why Clinton lied…well, who knows? Or as Hely suggested, was it true after all? Might her parents have just been really, really keen on beekeepers?
Hely is a fan of Cormac McCarthy but also evocative non-fiction like The Possessed by Elif Batuman. He’s also loves the design of Penguin classics.
Back in 2011 I had tickets to go and see Weird Al Yankovic. Unfortunately the gig never happened because of earthquakes but I always hoped that he would make it back some day. So much so I even wrote a blog post and my own somewhat silly musical parody in an effort to lure him back.
Well folks, today is that day. Tonight at the Isaac Theatre Royal we will be enjoying the music of Weird Al, arguably the most successful musical parody act of the modern age.
Weird Al was probably at the peak of his popularity in the 1980s (and certainly I’ve always felt his hair and cheesy schtick was very suited to that particular decade) but he’s never really gone away, releasing album after album. His latest, Mandatory Fun came out in 2014 and was his most successful for years, with the online videos becoming instant classics. I actually think I might prefer his take on Pharrell Williams’ Happy, the equally infectious, and cheeky, Tacky.
And he doesn’t just do parodies. There are always some original tracks on each album which obviously tend towards the ridiculous. “Albuqueque” from his 1999 album “Running with scissors” is a favourite in our house, an epic journey involving love, violence and snorkel-theft (amongst many other weird and varied things).
He also always includes a polka medley on each album which mashes up all the biggest hits of the year…with accordion. It sounds nuts but it’s actually really good. And Yankovic is pretty proficient on the old squeeze-box…
If you’re in the mood for some humour in your listening roster then definitely check out Mandatory Fun or 2011’s Alpocalypse. In this “post-ironic” age musical parody and knowing references to pop culture are more common than ever so Weird Al is by no means the only show in town (though possibly the only one tonight).
Other artists you might also want to check out include –
Richard Cheese (cross-genre humour abounds when lounge meets metal/rap/everything)
When Meg Ryan mimed an orgasm in a diner in When Harry Met Sally and a nearby customer said: I’ll have what she’s having, that was Nora Ephron making her mark as one of the soon-to-be most quoted contemporary authors.
Ephron made me feel OK about growing up (Wallflower at the Orgy), breaking up (Heartburn) and growing older (I feel bad about my neck). She didn’t write to change our lives; instead her writing retells our lives to us in a way that sparks recognition, affirms who we are and makes us laugh while we are at it.
From this you can tell that I am a huge Ephron fan and the arrival of her biography The Most of Nora Ephron is therefore a great joy to me. In fact, my life story can just about be summarised in Ephron quotes:
On education:If you love architecture, you need to do more than marry an architect.
On betrayal: If I had to do it again, I would have made a different kind of pie. The pie I threw at Mark made a terrific mess, but a blueberry pie would have been even better, since it would have permanently ruined his new blazer, the one he bought with Thelma.
On growing older: Our faces are lies and our necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t have to if it had a neck.
I love her writing. I want to write like this.
How about you, do you have an author of whom you can honestly say:
I was saddened to hear recently, via the library necrology, of the death of the writer and broadcaster Deric Longden. He had a great talent for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary and for bringing to life the people and cats he encountered – I have thoroughly enjoyed re-reading his complete works.
I first discovered Deric when I heard him speak in Grimsby many years ago. On that occasion he was talking about his first two books Diana’s Story and Lost for Words which respectively tell the story of his first wife’s debilitating illness, now believed to be ME, and the final few years of his mother’s life. These books are full of his characteristic warmth, humour and delight in everyday happenings but are tempered by sadness and tragedy. The portraits he creates of Diana, so courageous and determined despite constant pain from a then undiagnosed condition, and his mother, who also has a wonderful way with words but then suffers a stroke, are truly memorable and moving. These are two books which can make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same sentence.
Deric hints at an interest in cats in these two works – I particularly enjoyed the references to the tall kitten next door – but from The Cat Who Came in from the Cold to Paws in the Proceedings, his final work, the cats in his life take centre stage. The everyday adventures of Thermal, Tiggerand friends (including Ralph the sultana) are interspersed with the Huddersfield-based experiences of Deric and his second wife Aileen (novelist Aileen Armitage, who is registered blind). A visit to the local shops can become an epic journey with many eccentric characters and situations to encounter.
Some cats come and go – over-excitable kitten Frink, old timer Arthur and feral Nokia – but ever-loyal Thermal and mother hen Tigger are recurring characters and it is a delight to follow them over the years, from adorable kittens to elder statescats ruling the Longden household.
Deric was remarkable for his ability to provide a warm and loving voice for the elderly, the disabled, the eccentric and the feline, and for his celebration of everyday life.
Your local Christchurch City Library is filled with popular titles everyone loves. The Jodi Picoults, Nora Roberts and Jamie Oliver cookbooks fill the library shelves. But how about the more obscure and, dare I say it, slightly odd books that live in our library?
A while ago I started collecting photocopied front covers of books with odd titles, or about unusual subjects, or books I just couldn’t imagine would have an audience, even a niche one. Many of my library colleagues started collecting for me too as the more obscure books passed through their hands. I now have an ever expanding pile of great covers.
How to Bombproof your Horse is my favourite so far. It’s actually about teaching confidence and obedience to your horse in tricky situations such as crowds. I also took a double take at 1080 Recipes. Is it just me or would most Kiwis see that as cooking with possum poison? There are so many quirky titles hiding on the Non-Fiction shelves in your local library, it’s well worth a browse. Have you got a favourite quirky title?
Mmmm – a home alone challenge. It is grey and wet and I can see the remains of liquefaction through the window. Time to be cheered up I think.
Television in the next room plays a cheerful soundtrack of Rory McIlroy striding to victory in the US Open but I need more. I know – You Tube – yes the Goons – a singalong with the chorus of the Yingtong song is therapeutic – but I still need more.
I hadn’t originally planned to attend A.A.Gill’s session at the 2011 Auckland Writers And Readers Festival, as everything I’d heard and read about him sounded dreadful. I was sure that he was a grumpy Scots curmudgeon who would be boringly self-important to listen to.
How wrong I was. I was in fits of laughter for most of the session, as he used his savage wit to cut swathes through chefs (most of them left school by 14), TV programmers (the only profession I know that eat their own young), trawler fishing in the UK (the boats are designed for fish, so if you’re human on board, there’s nowhere to be comfortable, and of course for the fish, if they’re on board, they’re dead), restaurant dishes (I once tasted foie gras sushi – it tasted like something off a vet’s biopsy tray) and so much more.
Restauranteur Al Brown (Hunger For The Wild TV star) struggled to rein in his guest’s loquacious tendencies, and at times sat dumbstruck, unable to break into the verbal stream that flowed spontaneously with very little prompting. Mr Gill was open about his previous battles with drink and drugs (his first job was as a drug dealer and hence was exempt from paying the minimum tax rate), and told of reinventing himself through Oxfam clothes. He went through a period of wearing very weird outfits (tutu or monocle anyone?) in the hope that one would be the right fit character-wise for him.
He is extremely dyslexic (in his words “middle class stupidity”) and was sent to the only vegetarian boarding school in Britain as a cure. He spent “hundreds of years” in art classes, as they were the only ones that didn’t have exams, and as a consequence thought he was an artist. He became a journalist at the ripe old age of 40, gained a contract earning more money than his dad, and now fills in his days either by watching TV (as a critic), eating food (as a critic) or going on holiday (as a critic) – are you seeing a pattern there somewhere?
I wouldn’t like to be under the spotlight of his ascerbic wit but he is a great comedy act to watch, which surprisingly included some moments of real pathos, particularly when talking about the last meal he had with his Dad who was an alzheimer’s sufferer. I want to read his books now, and will be able to picture him, a sophisticate in a Saville Row suit, withering his opposition with words.