Strange relationships – John Safran meets Te Radar: WORD Christchurch Shifting Points of View

The appearance of Mr John Safran in Christchurch managed to pack out The Piano venue on Sunday with a fair audience. He was matched with NZ’s very own version of himself, Te Radar Esq., who pointed out that although they both looked very similar, you could easily tell them apart as John was the one with the accent. Unless of course you were from Australia, in which case Te Radar was the one with the accent. Simple really.

Te Radar and John Safran
Te Radar and John Safran. Flickr IMG_2509

Yet simple John’s new book Depends What You Mean by Extremist: Going Rogue With Australian Deplorables is not. In fact it might be claimed that one reason for writing the book was because most other media didn’t like the tangled web of stories John had discovered in his very own Aussie backyard. What he’d found happening in the world of political radicals was not easily reduced by the popular media spotlight to black vs white, or local vs outsiders.

There are many reasons people are in involved in anti-Islam rallies, and it’s not always politics.

In the world of Australian extremist groups things have become very complicated, says John. “Out in the street things are so messed up, it’s hard to pick things apart.”

John has found a very diverse range of cultures and people marching for the reclaim Australia and anti-Islam causes, some of them strange and unexpected bedfellows. An anti-immigrant campaigner with Aboriginal and Italian lineage hanging with white nationalists, a Sri Lankan pastor opposing multiculturalism, and leaders of anti-immigrant rallies opening their speeches by acknowledging the land they were standing on as belonging to the Aboriginal community.

Some have claimed the lack of media interest in John’s stories proves the “bubble” caused by social media and the internet is real, the so-called echo chamber where we only pay attention to things and ideas that meet our world-view and beliefs.

Yet people have always filtered news and read newspapers and magazines selectively. We read what attracts our interest and reading things that don’t fit our understanding of the world can be challenging, so often we don’t. The internet hasn’t created that effect, it’s just made it quicker and easier to achieve – such is the way of computers.

What John has discovered is that thanks to social media on the internet, the “unsayable often becomes normal when repeated over and over”:

The world changed as I was writing the book. The anti-Islam street movement tried to portray the rallies as ‘normal’ not extreme, but I found they were led by some very extreme people. It was like the fringe and alternative had become mainstream or at least mingled up with the mainstream.

John Safran
John Safran. Flickr IMG_2501

Te Radar asked John if he’d become less optimistic about the world as a result of writing the book? John’s response was that he had definitely got a bit paranoid hanging around with extreme people. Ironically he thought that getting out on the streets got him out of the echo chamber that the average person might inhabit.

But the idea that he may be humanising these people by writing about them in a book was not something he was trying to achieve. He is more driven by the comedian and artist in him, not so much the need to be a writer:

I can’t moralise about anything ‘cos I’ve always done something in the past I shouldn’t. But I don’t think people read my book and think the things these groups are saying and doing are ok.

A few questions from the audience stirred things up, with a bit of heckling that just came across as try-hard or even embarrassing. Mostly it was all very civilised and well-behaved. I don’t go to a lot of these events, so maybe that’s normal in Christchurch.

I’ve enjoyed reading the book and it’s definitely an eye opener. And thanks to John seeing the irony in much of what he saw happening, very funny too, although perhaps more in a gallows humour way.

John Safran’s ability to just rock up somewhere Louis Theroux styles and ask people the questions going begging, without being beaten to a pulp, continues to amaze me. An audience member shared the story of the New York commuters cleaning anti-Semitic graffiti from the walls of a train with hand sanitser, and John himself thought that the antidote to all this extremism is just to expose these people to the world.

All of which made me think that maybe John Safran is using humour to wake us up to the way people under our very noses think about the world. Does this make him the comedic hand sanitizer of the Aussie extremist world?

Quick Questions with Andrew Lumsden (Te Radar) – WORD Christchurch

CoverWe are asking quick questions of writers and thinkers coming to Shifting Points of View, WORD Christchurch’s suite of events at September’s Christchurch Arts Festival.
Today, it’s comedian and tv personality Andrew Lumsden aka Te Radar. He’s joining John Safran to talk about Depends what you mean by extremist on Sunday 10 September 1pm at The Piano:

What are you looking forward to doing in Christchurch?

Meeting John Safran (big fan) and having the opportunity to ask him questions about his fascinating descent into the world of Australian fundamentalism. His book is perplexing, hilarious, and deeply depressing and the chance to have an hour with him is absolutely going to be the highlight of my very brief visit. And I will see what else I can cram into my 7 or so hours there at the festival, naturally. I really must check the programme!

What do you think about libraries?

At school I immersed myself in the library. While others romped around the sports field I lost myself for hours just walking the aisle and randomly pulling books from shelves to devour in a perpetual romp of discovery. And I always remember a photo I saw in a mining museum in a former colliery in Yorkshire, of miners in their Sunday best, standing outside the brand new library they had fundraised for, the looks on their faces saying they knew that they had created the potential to allow simple escapism, to educate, and emancipate all who entered its walls. But I worry that there are those who say that they are outdated, unneeded in a world of Google. Nonsense. Long form reading, curation, discovery, simply a place to escape to physically as well as intellectually, are all of the utmost import in our current times.

What would be your “desert island book”?

Catch 22.

Share a surprising fact about yourself.

I cry with joy when I think of my daughter while I’m away from home. Even for a few hours.


Celebrating Failure: My time with Te Radar

Te RadarI meet Te Radar at St Matthew in the City during rehearsal for the Good Word debate. He’s a man of the moment – with a prime-time Sunday night slot on TV One, and touring a new show, Eating the Dog, as part of the international comedy festival. I suggest to him that he’s managed what few comics ever do – a leap into mainstream media.

“That’s always what I wanted to do – more so than stand-up in a way. Stand-up was a gateway to hosting something. It’s really nice to have been given probably the premier slot on television in New Zealand – it doesn’t get any better and more wholesome than seven o’clock on a Sunday night. Not probably the slot I thought I would have ended up in.”

The show and his profile has brought him popularity with a hugley diverse audience – but he gets particular attention from older women. As a case in point, he can now pack the library at Taupo.

“It was myself and Dave Armstrong and it was literally a record crowd …  I was doing a schools show after that and a contingent of them trouped over there, with their shining faces and their grey hair; their mature demeanour – it was fantastic.”

Part of his appeal is his fragility, his willingness to give things a go and fail. Sometimes miserably.

I’ve always said that celebrating failure is really important. My entire career has been built on failure. I went off to university to do law, and that failed. Really badly. Various things have failed along the way and you always pull positives from it. I become concerned sometimes that we don’t celebrate it enough and allow people to realise that they can fail – that failure is actually a positive option.

Eating the Dog, Te Radar’s new stand-up show celebrates some of New Zealand’s most spectacular and regrettable failures.

They’re ones that I’ve looked and and thought – these people have had a go at something and it all fell apart. Even though the outcomes are very tragic – I look at the Wairau massacre, or the Wairau incident as some people call it – I like to think of it as the Wairau misunderstanding. The story behind it is mad.

Lorraine – the very first aerial casualty. A wonderful story – but he dies.

I mention that we have photos of that incident in our collection, so our conversation naturally turns to libraries.

Libraries have been part of my life ever since I was a kid. I’ve got a real big thing for libraries, I’m a passionate supporter of them. It’s probably best summed up in a photograph that I saw in a mining museum in the north of England. There was a photograph of all of the men of the town in their Sunday best, standing outside the workingmen’s library that they’d just set up. The sense of pride and achievement – working class men who couldn’t afford to buy the books now had something, and they could get the learning that up until that time that had been denied them.

They’re a powerful thing libraries, and whenever I see moves by councils to make them very user-pays I think it so short-sighted. You’re actually weakening a very important part of society [the people] who can go and get access to all of that information.

When he wrote for the Herald, the column that drew by far the greatest response was one about the closure of the Cambridge High School library and turning it into a computer centre so kids could go on the internet.

“There’s an enormous amount of information on the internet – but it’s a different kind of accessing of information. I’m a ferocious consumer of information off the internet – but you do get the sense you’re consuming it in a very shallow kind of way.

There’s nothing like going to a library and finding a book. The debate tonight is in many ways about the future of what we consider to be a book. The changes there and how they’ll affect libraries are going to be really fascinating. If you can have a book and it’s an e-book and you can just click on a button and immediately access more information – that will be fascinating. But where it will leave the traditional concept of a library, with dusty tomes on a shelf that no-one’s taken out for years …

We need to maintain the physical book, because all of the technology’s great until the power goes out, or there’s a corruption of it. All of these people taking thousands of photographs that are never printed out … they’re stuck as zeroes and ones in media formats that are being outdated every day…

Having said that, I’ve been using a lot of the Turnbull Library resources – Puke Ariki, for example. Te Ara – fantastic. For what I do, [they’re] just absolutely brilliant – the fact that I can go online and access the photographic archives that are there in the Turnbull Library through Timeframes – that is a priceless treasure.

But there are barriers – primarily cost, he says.

I would love to have printed a book about all of the stories in my show with all the beautiful photographs – it’s impossible. Unless I was to get an enormous grant from somewhere I can’t afford those images.

Archived television footage is simply not an option.

In the Off the Radar TV series the archive footage was taken out – it was too expensive – hundreds of dollars a second. To me there’s something not right about that. That archive is a treasure for everybody.

In the future those are some of the questions that need to be faced, that whole concept of user pays and locking up these treasures. I’m quite passionate about that.

Time overtook us and we had to cut our interview a little short. My attempt to record our reconvened discussion went awry, a digital failure meant I forgot to press a button and the beautiful second version of our discussion was lost in the improvised make-up room housed in the crypt of St Matthew in the City.

So what do you think? Should our archives be open and accessible and available for re-use? Should we sting commercial operators quite so much? Are libraries and archives distancing themselves too much from the real world – or are we just naturally protective of the treasures of the past?