Friday, 29 January 2016

Misinformation

Today I heard that Joe Cocker had died, and read that Richie Havens had. Rock stars' deaths have been coming so thick and fast lately that I duly noted both defunctions - then later thought, wait a minute, I'm sure I've written about Cocker's death, and didn't Havens die too? The answers are Yes (link here) and Yes (April 22, 2013). Follow the link within the link and you can enjoy k.d. lang's sublime rendition of A Case of You...  

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Thriving

Sparrows - House Sparrows - are everywhere in Wellington, along with many other familiar English birds: Starlings, Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Goldfinches...  For a Londoner, being among an abundance of sparrows again is a joy. Central London has mysteriously lost almost all its sparrow population in the past couple of decades, for reasons no one has yet been able to figure. And London is not alone - Prague too has lost most of its sparrows, numbers are falling fast in Paris and Madrid, while in Berlin, oddly, sparrows are now largely confined to the East of the city (are they natural Communists?).
 One of the likeliest causes - though it can't be the only one - of sparrow decline is the sad loss of urban vegetation, as concrete, paving and decking take over (the insects that live on trees and shrubs are essential to the diet of growing sparrows). As Wellington is surely one of the lushest, greenest, most vegetation-rich cities in the world, the sparrows have nothing to fear on that score. Nor does Wellington have, as London does, a growing population of Sparrowhawks, raptors that live up to their name.
 Despite sparrows' abundance, their cheerful sociability and their apparently perfect adaptation to urban life (see this story, sent to me by the excellent Dave Lull), they are far more vulnerable than they might seem. Such is their intense gregariousness that once numbers fall below a certain level, colonies seem to collectively lose the will to live; they virtually cease breeding and decline into rapid colony collapse - hence the speed with which they disappear from once sparrow-rich areas. It's a sad story - but, by the look of things, one that's not going to happen in Wellington.

Monday, 25 January 2016

More to Like

One of the many things I like about this city of Wellington - and one of the most unexpected - is the wonderful variety of building styles, most of which have a distinctive charm and lightness about them. Away from the compact and (as such things go) architecturally inoffensive city centre, much of Wellington is built of wood - this is earthquake country - and spreads out across a range of almost impossibly steep hills. The oldest of the wooden buildings date back to the mid-19th century, but they are still being built today in essentially the same style - a wooden core, usually of one or two stories, with pitched roofs and gables topped with decorative finials, prettily detailed verandahs and balconies galore, usually painted white (the default colour of New Zealand cars too), often with very English sash windows and equally English stained-glass inserts, and luxuriant roses in the small front yards.
 Houses of this general style can be tiny cottages tucked between buildings on back streets, or grand seaside mansions, or anything in between (those in the picture above are towards the upmarket end); the style is infinitely adaptable and perfectly suited to Wellington.
These charming wooden houses give a curious Wild West feel to parts of the city, and that is enhanced by the covered sidewalks - verandahs supported by elegant decorative cast-iron columns - of many shopping streets. I've never been to San Francisco, but Wellington reminds many of that other steep, quake-prone city.
 Generally speaking, the grander buildings of the city don't become very interesting until the Twenties and Thirties, the Victorian and Edwardian efforts being provincial English in style - but with a happy lack of heavy and monumental buildings (the earthquake factor again).
With the discovery of Art Deco and its more frivolous sister Moderne, Wellington architecture came into its own, finding a light, cheerful, decorative and streamlined style that would adapt to everything from office buildings to cinemas, seaside apartments blocks to public buildings (e.g. the splendid Central Fire Station). Happily Wellington is aware of what it's got, and there is an official Art Deco heritage trail around the best of these delightful buildings.
 More recent developments have, predictably, been in the direction of International Bland modernism, but so much remains of Wellington's abundance of likeable, enjoyable buildings that the city retains its unique look and feel. Long may it do so.





Saturday, 23 January 2016

Silvereye

Saw a couple of these little beauties in Wellington's Botanic Garden yesterday (where the Hydrangea dell is looking really spectacular just now). The bird is a New Zealand native, the Silvereye or Waxeye, or White-Eye, or Tauhou, and the pair dutifully appeared just yards from a notice telling visitors all about them. Perhaps they're on the payroll... I can report also that the museum in the garden's Carter Observatory, 'New Zealand's place for space', is excellent, the best of its kind I've seen, with explanatory interactive displays to please children and adults alike, lots of content - and, happily, plenty of attention given to Maori and other creation myths (which, of course, make far more sense than the science).

Friday, 22 January 2016

To England's Farthest-Flung Literary Shrine

Yesterday I made my way to the Wellington suburb of Thorndon to visit Katherine Mansfield House, the author's birthplace and childhood home. Who could resist the allure of a house described by Mansfield variously as 'that awful cubbyhole', 'the wretched letterbox in town' and 'that horrid little piggy house which was really dreadful'? She also described it as 'dark and crowded'. Dark it still is, and crowded it must have been: in the five years the family occupied it, three generations lived together in what is a modestly sized two-storey Victorian mini-villa - Katherine (née Kathleen Beauchamp) and her two sisters (more siblings were to come), her banker father, her mother, her maternal grandmother and two young aunts.
 The house, built all of New Zealand timbers, was restored in the 1980s and returned to its former layout, with original features preserved or faithfully reproduced and some Beauchamp furnishings reinstalled, along with family possessions, pictures, and a Katherine Mansfield archive. The result is an all too convincing re-creation of the kind of gloomy domestic setting the rebellious, self-dramatising and artistically inclined Katherine would have found intolerably oppressive - though, as she left this house at the age of five, she can hardly have formed any very strong opinion of it at the time.
 She did, however, remember the house quite vividly, and images from her early years there crop up in her short stories, especially the later ones where she returns to - and to some extent reconciles herself to - her New Zealand roots. It seems you could take the girl out of Wellington - or rather she could take herself out as soon as she was able, helped by a generous allowance from her father - but you couldn't take Wellington out of the girl. The early years, the home ground, can never be entirely escaped, are always in some way fertile soil, however contemptible the setting might have seemed at the time. In Katherine Mansfield's case, it was the death of her beloved brother Leslie in the Great War that proved the catalyst, turning her stricken mind and imagination back to scenes from her early years in Wellington and inspiring some of her finest writing (At the Bay, The Garden Party, Prelude, etc). In these she took a very European form of short story, transported it to the alien soil of New Zealand - and created some of the most brilliantly effective stories of the 20th century. Reluctant Kiwi and eager exile though she was, you could say that with her writings New Zealand first became a locus of world, rather than provincial, literature.
 Katherine was very fond of flowers - her writings are full of them - and the gardens of her childhood home have been restored and replanted, very pleasingly, with 1890s favourites. When I came out of the house I walked round to the small back garden - and there was a Monarch butterfly, feeding on a tall Viburnum, looking every bit as exotic and out of place in suburban Wellington as the young Katherine Mansfield must have done.







Thursday, 21 January 2016

A Burning Question for Today

How many butterfly species occur in New Zealand? (Don't pretend you don't care, you know this matters...) My Butterflies of New Zealand (1970) lists a mere 17, and this seems to be the core species quotient, but figures vary - happily in an upward direction - and Wikipedia lists 26. Very much larger numbers of New Zealand moths have been identified, but lepidopterists agree that there are probably at least 200 more moth species yet to be described. What's more, the list of butterflies might eventually add up to something like 70 (more than the UK), including 25 new species of Copper - the research has yet to be done.
 The fact is that, across all of Nature and all of the world - even Britain - new species are being discovered all the time. This story from India illustrates one of the ways in which this happens. Estimates of the number of species on the planet vary so widely that it's safe to conclude that no one really has any idea, except that it's very, very big. Even today, there are great swathes of the most aboundingly biodiverse parts of the world where nobody has seriously looked. And the other side of the story is that species previously thought extinct also keep popping up again, alive alive oh. Here - also from India - is the latest. There is no real certainty about either the number of species or how many of them are extinct. The world is always infinitely more complex and much less known than we think.

Larkin's Girl

I've just noticed that a piece I wrote about Philip Larkin's remarkable novel A Girl in Winter is up on The Dabbler.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Three Bookshops

For such a small city, Wellington is well provided with second-hand bookshops, the three best of them being all within a short walk of each other. Each, as it happens, represents a different, very recognisable type. One is the kind of large, well stocked, well organised emporium that somehow mildly depresses the spirits; there is something about it - the layout, the scale, the lack of character? - that drains the pleasure from perhaps finding a book you want. The actual finding is, after all, only a part of the second-hand bookshop experience at its richest. And something much more like that is offered by the other two shops of the three. One has a relatively small stock, attractively displayed and clearly chosen with care. The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, and you know as soon as you walk in that you're going to enjoy your visit and will very probably find something you wanted, or happen upon a new discovery. This is the type of bookshop exemplified by an establishment that I've often mentioned before - The Bookshop in Wirksworth, a small shop that I have yet to leave leave empty-handed.
 And then there is the third bookshop, which offers a perfect combination of chaos and order, quantity and selectivity, logic and eccentricity. It's one of those shops whose contents spill over onto stands and trestle tables outside - tables laden with so much interesting stuff that on my first visit, today, I didn't get far across the threshold. The very first volume I picked up outside was the Everyman Sir Thomas Browne (Religio Medici, Urne Buriall, etc.), which turned out to be one of many Everymans, including Hazlitt's Table Talk, Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico, and even a volume of Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Also outside were, to name a few, the Oxford Standard Authors Matthew Arnold, Richard Holmes's Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer, Richard Aldington's Portrait of a Genius, But... (a biography of D.H. Lawrence, first edition) and a collection of Richard Ellmann's essays, A Long the Riverrun. All of these were going for a song.
 By the time I had finished my outdoor browsing, I could do no more than glance at what was inside, but it looked immensely promising and bountiful. As if to prove the point, one of the very first books to catch my eye was Butterflies of New Zealand, written and illustrated by W.B.R. Laidlaw (1970), a snip at $12NZ. Reader, I bought it - and I'll certainly be returning to that bookshop.

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

More for the Celestial Jam Session

The rock 'n' roll deaths are coming thick and fast just now. With much of the fansphere still reeling from the loss of David Bowie, news comes today of two more deaths: Glenn Frey, Eagles guitarist and co-founder, and Dale Griffin, drummer with Mott the Hoople. Bowie will overshadow both these deaths, though that of Dale Griffin will no doubt lead to plenty of replays of Mott the Hoople's version of Bowie's All the Young Dudes. For me, though, Mott must be remembered for one of the truly great anthemic rock 'n' roll songs - All the Way from Memphis. I think I saw Mott the Hoople at the Cambridge Corn Exchange around 1970, but I may well be wrong. Never mind - here is All the Way from Memphis set to a rather extraordinary video. Enjoy...

Monday, 18 January 2016

Groovy (and Wrong)

'She had started on the subject of progress. "We mustn't let ourselves be groovy, Canon Jocelyn," speaking to him as if he were deaf. 'We must have a scientific point of view."
 "Ah, yes," said Canon Jocelyn. He pronounced "Ah" as if it were "Myer", with an indescribable intonation of aloofness.
 "I mean, however much you object to it, we can't go back. We must be progressive. Eppur si muove."
 "Groovy", "scientific", "progressive", he winced at the words...'

This passage occurs in The Rector's Daughter by F.M. Mayor, published 1924 (which I am reading), and presents the word 'groovy' in a curious, to me hitherto unknown, light - as meaning, in fact, pretty much the opposite of what it came to mean in the Sixties: stuck in a groove, as against - well - groovy, baby.
 Another curiosity in The Rector's Daughter is a reference to 'such a wrong part of London as Kensington'. It is considered 'wrong' as against Hampstead, Chelsea, Bloomsbury, St John's Wood and (for heaven's sake) Hammersmith. Kensington has clearly come up in the world since the Twenties. I'm sure Ivy Compton Burnett - or indeed T.S. Eliot - didn't think they were living in a 'wrong' part of London. How times change...

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Lakeside: Tender Ghosts

Back in Wellington after a (socially) busy few days in a lakeside resort on South Island, a small town lavishly furnished with motels of the kind through which Humbert Humbert and Lolita might have passed on their American wanderings.  We, however, were staying in a rented house with a garden planted with very English-looking lavender, Scabious (cultivars) and big white Asters. On the first sunny morning a Yellow Admiral was nectaring, among a multitude of bees, on the lavender. I had seen a couple of Yellow Admirals before, in Wellington, and they are rather lovely - not least because their beautiful 'cryptic' underwings closely resemble those of the English Red Admiral ('Nabokov's butterfly').
 Beyond the lavender was a down-sloping lawn carpeted with flowering white clover. At first it seemed there was no butterfly activity there, but, as I looked harder and got my eye in, I realised the whole lawn was alive with tiny blue butterflies - some smaller even than our native Small Blues (and,  like them, not very blue in colour). They were busily dashing from flower to flower, never flying more than a few inches from the ground, often sparring briefly in passing, occasionally pausing to bask,  before returning to those nectar-rich flowers. As far as I could make out, these little beauties were New Zealand Common Blues, though they might have had a few Southern Blues among them - and perhaps, I like to think, the odd Long-Tailed Blue (quite abundant in New Zealand).
 This lively lawn was a sight that might have cheered Nabokov - a domesticated version of his vision of the ultimate felicity, the 'ecstasy' of standing among nectaring butterflies on their native heath. And behind the ecstasy, 'something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern―to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humouring a lucky mortal.'

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Submission

Well, I have finished reading Michel Houellebecq's Submission, a novel that is, I think, finally defeated by the very cynicism and pessimism that propel it so effectively and enjoyably through its early and middle stages. The theme is, as all the world knows (this book had a sensational birth, published on the very day of the Charlie Hebdo attack), the Islamisation of France. This comes about following a general election in 2022, won by a charismatic, cosmopolitan, eminently electable Muslim (with no Islamist or antisemitic baggage) at the head of an alliance including the Socialists and the rump of the old Republican right. This alliance, represented as the only hope of securing the survival of the Republic (and of the EU) in the face of the threat from first-round winners the National Front, wins a landslide victory - and, in these particular circumstances, with this particular leader, that seems an all too believable outcome.
 However, Submission is not a political novel in anything like a standard sense; it is a Houellebecq novel, in which the politics takes place off-stage while the narrator - the familiar authorial stand-in, solitary, decrepit, sex-mad, cynical, terminally disenchanted, addicted to booze and cigarettes (and, this time, something of a gourmand) - pursues his preoccupations, casually thinking the unthinkable as he goes along, and saying the unsayable with unblinking frankness. Which is very bracing, quite unlike any other living writer I can think of, and often startlingly funny - Houellebecq is nothing if not a satirist, and he cuts through our delusions about ourselves and our society like a knife through the softest butter.
 The narrator, François, is an academic with a decent university teaching post, a respected expert on J.K. Huysmans (best known to English readers as the author of A Rebours - Against the Grain, Against Nature), a writer with whom he is still obsessed, this fixation providing one of the strands of the novel. François's personal life is, needless to say, a shambles: the nearest thing he has to a genuine relationship with a woman - or anyone - is about to collapse, largely from his inanition, and he is soon availing himself of other sexual possibilities in an effort to revive his flagging libido. No one can make sex quite so profoundly unappetising as Houellebecq...
 Meanwhile, François keeps finding himself thrown into contact with various mysterious figures - all men, of course (Houellebecq can't really write women, one of his major weaknesses) - who have the inside story of what is going on in France and beyond, and who are happy to spell it out. A remarkably large part of Submission is in the form of exposition by these enigmatic insiders, either in direct conversation or through their writings. They present a chilling picture of western civilisation in suicide mode, willingly being destroyed by the very freedoms it cherishes, succumbing to its own internal contradictions and to the brute facts of demographics: once a population ceases to replace itself it will inevitably be swallowed up by a more vigorous one - and in a democracy that means the end of the old order. Islam, by all these accounts, will inevitably take over, in France and in much of western Europe.
 And so it comes to pass in France in 2022 - and the remarkable thing is (in Houellebecq's version of events) how little difference it makes, and how easy the members of the various power elites find it to accommodate to the new realities, make the necessary adjustments, go through the required formalities. This is all too plausible, but Houellebecq doesn't have anything like the kind of panoptic imagination to grasp the wider impact of Islamisation, especially on its principal victims - women, who are largely to be removed from the workplace and set to work raising families in polygamous marriages. This is merely stated as so much information, and doesn't unduly bother our narrator - well it wouldn't, would it? He, for his part, finds that the new order presents him with the opportunity to revive not only his stalled career but his flagging sex life. He even, after a half-hearted flirtation with Huysmans' Catholic spirituality, proves strangely unresistant to the fundamentals of Islam - especially the pleasing prospect of polygamy and sex with submissive underage girls. What's a clapped-out, sex-crazed old cynic to do?
 This is all very well, and quite in keeping with what we know of our deplorable narrator, but it does mean that the novel peters out, rather than reaching a satisfactory conclusion. Cynicism, that universal solvent, finally dissolves even itself. The latter stages of Submission are thin and lifeless compared to what came before. As a novel it must, I suppose, be counted a failure, but as an examination of what his happening in Europe now, as a ventilation of issues that are barely regarded as legitimate but may well prove crucial, it is a typically brave and fiercely stimulating piece of work. Prophetic too?  Well, all prophecy is ultimately a matter of taking a hard, clear-eyed look at the present, and that Houellebecq - untainted by the slightest whiff of political (or emotional) correctness - does like no one else currently writing fiction. Events since the publication of Submission - events in Germany and Belgium as well as France - certainly suggest that he wasn't barking up entirely the wrong tree. For just one example, the German media's failure to report the events in Cologne on New Year's Eve until the story began to come out via social networks - this is exactly the scenario Houellebecq presents in Submission, where a kind of sporadic low-level civil war is being fought in France, quite unreported by the official media. Happy new year!





Sunday, 10 January 2016

Copper

Much of the land around Wellington harbour is reclaimed, some of it thrown up from the sea in the great earthquake of 1855 (our taxi driver yesterday had a great-great-grandfather who was Inspector of Police in Wellington at the time of that one). A small part of the reclaimed land, near Te Papa, has been turned into a pleasant natural park, planted with native shrubs and bushes and saltmarsh plants. There, as I discovered yesterday, lives a thriving little colony of the Common Copper (Pepe Para Riki in my new second language), happily feeding on its favourite Wire Vine (Pohuehue). It's a pretty little thing, rather like our own Duke of Burgundy, but paler and with the definite look of a Copper, if not the burnished colouring of our beautiful Small Copper. The Common Copper - as abundant as its name suggests - has a clever way of adapting its life cycle to cope with the unpredictability of the New Zealand weather, some of each brood of larvae going into a quiescent phase for several months while the rest proceed to maturity. It's one of those busy, happy-seeming butterflies that tend to bustle about in one place rather that whizzing past one's head at speed, so it's a joy to watch. And this morning I rescued one from a spiderweb, carefully pulling the strands of silk off until it was able to clean itself and take off, flying happily back into the Wire Vine bush. My conservation good deed of the day.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Monarchical

Being out here in the Antipodes, I didn't see yesterday/today's Google doodle commemorating the discovery of the Mountain of Butterflies, the overwintering place of America's Monarchs - one of the most dramatic stories in the history of lepidoptery (and surprisingly recent). Happily, the indefatigable Dave Lull sent it to me - and, equally happily, I saw a real live Monarch flying in Central Park...

One Weed, Two Reads

This pretty little plant, with its three-petalled flowers, caught my eye today in Wellington's spectacular and rather lovely Central Park (and I had noticed it earlier in other parts of town). It is Tradescantia fluminensis, a kind of Spiderwort, also fancifully known as the Wandering Jew. Although it's highly invasive and regarded as a noisome weed, it does make the most delightful ground cover...
 Meanwhile, I find myself with more reading time than I expected on this holiday, and am reading in tandem Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away (her second and final novel) and Michel Houellebecq's Submission (his latest) An unlikely pairing on the face of it, but both are works of fiercely individual imagination that make no concessions or compromises - take it or leave it (and many, understandably, find both writers too strong meat). O'Connor's God-soaked world and Houellebecq's God-abandoned one are equally absolute; there is no way out of either. Oddly, however, religion does find its way into Submission, which is in its typically perverse way a kind of acknowledgment of the inevitable 'return of religion' - this time in the form of the near-future Islamisation of France. It's a fascinating book, and, as always with Houellebecq, horribly readable. I shall probably have more to say when I've finished it.

 And I saw another Monarch in Central Park.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

To the Botanic Garden

Yesterday we took a ride from the city centre up to Wellington Botanic Garden on the 'cable car' (actually a funicular railway, fact fans). This is surely one of the world's great funicular rides, delivering you in a matter of minutes from the noise and bustle of the CBD as they call it (Central Business District) to the peaceful airy heights above town, and to the spectacular botanic garden which spreads itself greenly over a steeply sloping hillside site. Winding paths thread their way through a unique mixture of dense (evergreen) native woodland with specimen trees and plants from around the world, floral displays and the usual features - visitors' centre, cafe, an excellent playground. And all this is free, gratis and for nothing, in marked contrast to our own ludicrously expensive Kew Gardens.
 There is also a fine rose garden and, near it, a duck pond - where, to my delight, a splendid Monarch butterfly was gliding in elegant circles over the water. Until I came here, I didn't know Monarchs were to be found in New Zealand, but so they are - and across much of the South Pacific. They are in fact one of New Zealand's 'iconic' butterflies (they like things 'iconic' here), along with the Red Admiral (of which enough said).
 Yesterday was sunny and bright (though of course windy), but today is a horror - ferocious winds and rain blowing in from the bay, lowering skies, a day to batten down the hatches and stay indoors. Considering the dramatic contrasts in weather from day to day, it's a wonder the New Zealanders' temperament is so calm and equable, but so it undoubtedly is.

Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Butterfly

I have seen my first New Zealand butterflies - or rather butterfly: one species, three or four sightings. It was the New Zealand Red Admiral (Kahukura, for my Maori readers), a common species here, even in town. In pursuit of my quest for early deportation, I must report that, aesthetically, it is very much a poor relation of our own native Red Admiral, but I was glad to see it. That any butterflies at all manage to thrive in a city as windy as Wellington seems wellnigh miraculous. However, we've had a couple of beautiful days of sparkling sunshine and only light breezes. Yesterday I even took a bracing dip in the sea.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

To the Zoo

One of the treasured books of my early boyhood was called the Sunday Dispatch Animal Book - a tall hardcover bound in dull red cloth, containing grainy black-and-white photographs and descriptions of a wide range of zoo animals. It was given to me by a young Frenchman we had staying with us one summer as, I believe, a 'paying guest'. Though unimpressed by Hampton Court (c'est magnifique mais ce n'est pas Versailles), he had enjoyed London Zoo and, noting my interest in the animals, had given me the Sunday Dispatch book as a parting gift. I was quite bouleversé by his generosity.
 I was reminded of this book, and that long-ago zoo visit, when we went yesterday to Wellington Zoo, a cheery modern zoo in a fine hilly setting, with plenty of activities and attractions. It has a decent collection of animals and shows them off inventively and as humanely as possible, all the while hammering home the conservation message - well, that is a large part of a zoo's job these days. The animals, as zoo animals generally do, rise above the indignity of their circumstances, carrying on their animal lives regardless, often rewarding eager spectators with a no-show, a defiant glare or (if they're really lucky) an act of gross indecency. The stars, by and large, live up to their billing - Wellington's Sumatran tigers are particularly magnificent - and the chimpanzees, well aware that they are performing for their kin, put on a splendid, all too human, show. These agile, mischievous beasts were a big hit with the grandsons, as were the tiny marmosets that, along with a torpid iguana, entertain (from behind glass) diners in the zoo's café.
 At day's end I discovered that my face had turned a rather startling lobster red. New Zealand sunshine is famously strong, thanks to a hole in the ozone layer. They say it's healing itself now, though, as nature is wont to do.

England

Today - or yesterday, or whatever it is - I see my piece on the bizarre film England, My England is on The Dabbler...

Sunday, 3 January 2016

To the Museum

Yesterday we all went to the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa. This is a fine museum - lively, enterprising, welcoming, well designed - and it has much to commend it, especially to children, thanks to the range of interactive exhibits. It is also full of Maori art and artefacts, ranging in size right up to a full-scale meeting house. Now, this stuff is no doubt of great enthnographic interest, but from the purely aesthetic point of view (i.e. mine), there's no denying that it is for the most part hideous and dispiriting. The compulsion to cover every inch of every surface with elaborate repetitive patterns seems downright pathological and the effect is very wearing, while the grotesque faces that stare out at the unfortunate viewer at every turn - grimacing hideously, eyes bulging, tongues protruding - seem to bespeak a culture of terror and darkness, rather than the prelapsarian idyll we'd prefer  to imagine. Yet Maori imagery and symbolism is incorporated into virtually everything visual in New Zealand as so much benign and innocuous decoration, and no visitors to Te Papa seem anything but delighted by the overwhelming profusion of Maori material.
 The Antipodean nations used to be known for their 'cultural cringe' towards the vastly richer culture of the mother country. Now the cringe is directed towards the earliest inhabitants - in Australia's case, in a determined over-celebration of Aboriginal 'art'. You could call it political correctness (and you wouldn't be far wrong), but New Zealand's celebration of Maori art probably has more to do with the Kiwis' fundamental niceness and good nature, for which God be thanked. However, I think I shall have had more than my fill of all things Maori by the time I head home from here.

Friday, 1 January 2016

From the Antipodes

A belated Happy New Year to all, from Wellington, where the haunting cry of the Tui [above] rends the air.