Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Q and A by Vikas Swarup

There seemed to be quite a buzz about this book when it came out last year. The author was booked to come over to the Auckland Readers and Writers week even before his book had been published: by the time he was here, it was said to have "taken the world by storm". He had a six figure advance and the movie is said to be already in production: not bad for a first effort. Even better when you learn he wrote it in two months, while working full time, as an Indian diplomat. He has an amazing work rate - writing 20,000 words in a single weekend! He says the story was inspired by reading of some slum kids using the internet, which suggested that no matter what our background, there might be some innate ability just waiting to be tapped (hardly a startling proposition, surely?). Plus, he wanted to have some fun with the popularity of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Ram Mohammad Thomas is the central character. His name expresses the richness and diversity of India by being simultaneously Hindu, Moslem and Christian, but also indicates the lack of any fixed location within Indian social strata. Certainly, he seems to move around a lot, both geographically and socially, from the slums where he is about to be sold as a sex slave, to working for an Australian diplomat and then for a famous actress. At the time of the novel, he is an 18 year old waiter working in a bar in Delhi.

Given that employment, it comes as a surprise to the producers of quiz show Who Will Win a Billion that he is able to answer all twelve questions. Rather than pay him, they have him arrested. Before he is taken away, however, there is an interruption:
'My name is Smita Shah,' the woman announces calmly to Godbole. I am Mr Ram Mohammed Thomas's lawyer.' Then she looks at me, at my condition, and hastily averts her eyes.

Godbole is stunned. He is so stunned that he does not notice that I am equally stunned. I have never seen this woman before. I don't have money to hire a taxi. I can hardly hire a lawyer.
Of course, he doesn't know whether to trust her or not. It is decided on the flip of his much trusted one rupee coin that he will, and tell her his story. Each of the subsequent chapters are thus his account of how he came to have the right answer to each of the questions - his explanation is simply that "my life is such that I came to know the answers". For example, when he is asked what is written on the Christian Cross, he is able to answer it because he was abandoned as a baby and taken in by one Father Timothy Francis. So chapter two becomes an account of the years with Father Francis. In passing, he says that he loved going into the old church: It was an old building built in 1878, with stained glass windows and a spectacular roof made of timber. The alter was beautifully carved. Above it was a large crucifix of Christ and the letters INRI. There were sculptures of the Virgin and Child enthroned and of many saints...

Other questions involved things like the smallest planet in our solar system, Shakespeare, the Taj Mahal, where he just happened to have spent some time as a tour guide. This was another great story: in a previous chapter, he had lost 50,000 rupees to a gangster on a train (and there are two other great stories as to how he obtained the money and then how he faced down the gangster). He is now wandering around Agra, where he has never been before, and sees the Taj Mahal for the very first time. Luckily it is a day of free entry: he can enter and tag along behind a group of westerners who are getting the full monty of a tour. When a group of Japanese tourists see him, they ask him for the story: he wings it, making quite a bit up ("Really? Wow! So interesting! Guide book no mention all this.") When they give him 50 rupees for his trouble, he sees his way forward, and spends more than a year learning and guiding people about the Taj Mahal. A huge amount happens to him in this chapter: he turns 17, loses his virginity, falls in love, finds he has to buy his lover out of the clutches of her pimp/brother, has all sorts of troubles at home. Throughout, however, he is a good person: it as a consequence of helping someone that when he is asked a question which completely stumps him, he has a friend to phone.

One consequence of the premise is that each chapter reads rather like a stand-alone short story, rather than have a single narrative flow through the novel (if you can call it one). As I was reading, I did become troubled as to how it was all going to end: of course, he was going to come out the winner of the billion rupees, but I was worried about the book simply finishing as a set of disjointed narratives. Swarup manages to find quite a neat device to tie things together, leading some critics to get worried about the huge number of coincidences.

Given Ram's background on the street, we wouldn't exacvtly expect a pretentious sort of novel, and it isn't. It rollocks along without making a claim to do more than be entertaining and maybe to make us think about the roles of luck, coincidence and goodness in life. That, apparently makes it "book candy".

War and Peace (Book Two, Part One)

Early 1806: a time of peace, after defeat at the Battle of Austerlitz, where Andrey had been left for dead by Napoleon. Word on the street in Moscow is that he is dead, although he died a hero. At home, his wife is in labour, engaged in the “world’s most solemn mystery”: it would kill her to tell her Andrey is dead. Luckily, without any kind of fanfare, Andrey just walks in, all “didn’t you get my letters”.

The birth of his son is something of a mixed blessing; when he tries to see his wife, there is this awful scene:

The most pitiful, helpless animal cries could be heard from within the room. “Go away! You can’t come in!” said a frightened voice on the other side… The screams died down, and a few seconds passed. Then suddenly the most fearful scream - it couldn’t be hers, she couldn’t have screamed like that - came from inside the room… The screaming stopped and he heard a different sound, the wail of a baby.

“Why have they taken a baby in there… “[Der!] But “he went into his wife’s room. She was dead…”
So much happened in a very short piece of writing - it provides an interesting contrast with the pages he can spend on nothing, such as the argument in an earlier chapter over whose responsibility it was to set fire to a bridge ("you just told me to bring equipment for a fire, you didn't say anything about starting a fire..."). But it was sweet that his grumpy old dad, when he sees his son "put his rough old arms around his son’s neck in a vice-like grip, and without a word sobbed like a child”.

The big story in this part, however, is that of Pierre, a fellow said by his mum to be too noble for the corrupt world. His marriage is not going well - he is convinced that in his many visits, Dolokhov has “compromised” Hélène. Certainly, Dolokhov doesn’t help, saying things like “I’ve never met a woman not for sale”. The tension rises when they find themselves seated opposite each other at one of the numerous formal dinners these people seem to be endlessly attending. When Dolokhov makes a toast to “all the pretty women and their lovers”, it is too much: Pierre challenges him to a duel.

Now Pierre is a fat fellow who has never held a firearm in his life while Dolokhov is a soldier, yet he loses. Divine intervention? Pierre blames himself - for (he thinks) killing his foe and for marrying when he really did not love. This seems to be an important turning point for Pierre, as it starts him on the path of trying to sort out right from wrong. After attacking his wife with a marble table top (as you do when you’re conscience stricken, I’m sure) he gives a whole bunch of properties and buggers off to Moscow.

This all has strange consequences for young Rostov. He is home from the war, his family has received him with much love, his dad organises a dinner party with military precision. The timing seems to get a bit screwed up in this part: it starts in early 1806 but suddenly it is November, and Rostov is playing cards with Dolokhov, who did survive the duel. Not only that, but despite his mysogyny, he has fallen in love with Sonya, Rostov’s cousin. She can’t accept his proposals because she’s in love with her cousin.

So, Dolokhov is pissed off with the Rostov family, can't hang out with Hélène, bored out of his tree, expecting nothing from life and can’t see any point in not being cruel. Rostov has just promised his dad he'll live within his means, which are about 1200 roubles: he quickly loses 800, then another 800. But he keeps playing, and playing: Dolokhov keeps winning, until he is 43,000 roubles up (1000 roubles per year for the combined ages of him and Sonya). Dolokhov expects payment tomorrow. Imagine going home to tell your dad that! He’s certainly not feeling good, thinking he deserves, wants a bullet in the head but then he hears his sister Natasha singing, and it has a magical restorative effect.

Monday, January 30, 2006


It is funny: several things from quite a range of sources which I have read over the past few days have been on the same theme, that of the futility of dating as an effective way to find a life partner. For example, this article says that
dating presents itself as an education in human relationships. In fact it’s an anti-education. You could invent no worse preparation for love, for marriage, than the tireless pursuit of the perfect partner.
Over here,
dating was just what you had to do to get to the relationship stage. (and thankfully I don't intend to be doing any more of it!) Dating involved too much uncertainty, too much processing, too much distraction.
And the tweeters have been in on it as well, but they always are.

So, it is somewhat surprising that on Friday I found myself on a date. To give some background, there is this giant lottery in Europe at the moment, for something like 150 million quid. One fellow said that the odds of winning are about as good as meeting 40 unknown people randomly in the street and being able to guess their telephone number. Slightly better odds, in other words, than I'd give for me ever finding a suitable life partner. After all, it was recognition of that truth about me that helped me decide upon my present career, as it seemed to provide a better way to deal with such a circumstance than my previous choice of living. Burying myself in scholarly pursuits seemed to open up an, albeit limited, vista. Of course, I failed to consider the possibility that coffee girls would provide such a distraction.

But the point is, no matter how inefficient a process dating might be, if your world view does not extend to a belief in actually finding someone, then dating becomes redundant. It isn't that I necessarily don't think there is anyone who might see me as suitable; there has been a surprising number of those who evidently have. Unfortunately for those who hope for a symmetrically paired off world, I don't see many of those I meet as suitable, sufficently into the things which occupy my time and mind. I feel a fair amount of affinity for my old friend Seymour, off Ghost World, when he says "I can't relate to 99% of humanity". It is not a particularly comfortable space to occupy: I sometimes wonder how long it will be before I do go mad, turn into another of Dunedin's celebrities with his own catalogue of tics and nickname. I look around and see other people stumbling in and out of relationships all the time, and think to myself "why not me?". The thought of actually finding someone who "gets" me does appeal and, on occasion, doesn't seem impossible.

And so, I enable a profile on an online dating site, look around for those who appear to be literate, those who mention some of the things of interest to me in their profile, those who are not full of the things to which I am opposed. The most fascinating thing about this process has been the number of women prepared to send me messages, despite a complete lack of any apparent connection. A few, on a site I no longer visit, even become hostile when I find myself completely unable to summon up anything to say.

I am not sure how Friday night's date came to be - a message came in from someone, she seemed (and was, let there be no doubt about that) nice, but there were so many reasons given in my profile for her not to contact me. It is not surprising, therefore, that the evening was over almost before it started.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

To The Baltic With Bob by Griff Rhys Jones

I found, reading this book, that I have something in common with Mr Jones. Apart, that is, from Not the Nine O'Clock News, Alas Smith & Jones and The Secret Policeman's Other Ball. No, I wasn't with him in those shows but I did watch an awful lot of them.

But what I didn't know is that we both grew up reading Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons books (a series which has been recently re-issued and is in the Oamaru Public Library, maybe others). I'd actually managed to forget Ransome's name, but the memory of reading about these kids messing about in boats on the Norfolk Broads has never left me. In those days, I so wanted to get myself a boat and kit it out. Of course, growing up in Northland, we didn't have canals, or a boat, so it wasn't something I could experience for myself (the closest I got was a businesshouse yacht race in Whangarei harbour and a raft race) but it seemed like a lot of fun.

Jones, on the other hand, had a dad who was into boating and, being the highest paid comedian (2.5 million quid a year, apparently) could afford one of his own. Despite all his money, he buys himself a boat reputed to be no larger than a London taxi. He chose it for love, so stricken is he with its aesthetics. He describes it as the Chippendales of boats, built of timber in the 1950's and then rendered unfashionable by the use of sensible materials, like fibreglass, to build boats. Of course, once he bought it, he had to pile on lots of chrome and have it refurbished. I'd have been a bit frightened to be told, as he was when he took delivery with plans to leave immediately since he was well behind schedule, that "she might float".

Anyway, once they took delivery of this boat no larger than a taxi, Jones, his mate Bob and another fellow Baines who actually knew something about making boats work decide to spend the next three months or so making their way from England to St Petersburg. For Bob, it is an interesting way to indulge his passion for buying crap: he's offered a really good deal on an amphibious tank once he hits Russia. Their main reason for choosing that destination was that they were such cowardly sailors, they wanted to completely avoid the open sea (apart from the English Channel) and just potter about in canals, coastal waters and rivers. Easy peasey. Plus they were worried that at sea they'd get bored: this way they were never more than a few hours from the possibility of packing it in and flying home. Pretty much every night, they went ashore and found themselves a restaurant.

On the whole, they do have an easy time of it, apart from getting nearly run down by tankers in the English channel, finding their boat is not weather proof and getting damn near lost in an archipelago of islands "so topographically complex that it was expedient not to draw it". I think the funniest episode was when they were trying to communicate with the Russian coastguard, which said things like "BreeteeshYagt. Vazshoo desy frart deschkyykk" and, when asked to repeat "Vazshoodesyfrartdeschkyykk eschbek schbeckyyrrk" - meanwhile, this menacing black boat with its guns pointing at them was getting closer and closer - scarier than the time he had to ask Princess Margaret to repeat a question three times.

But the book is certainly not a joke-a-thon (someone accurately described it on Amazon as "amiable"), just a fairly gentle account of three guys (and the occasional hanger on) going for a fairly extensive boat trip. Rather than have the kind of falling out that Bill Bryson has with his companions, by the end of the trip Jones and Bob "had been reduced to 40 miles of silence between platitudes" - at about 6 or 7 miles an hour, that's a lot of silence. Nonetheless, when Jones had to go back to Sweden to retreive his boat, "loyal Bob, amusing Bob, patient and long-suffering Bob was ready, as always, to drop absolutely nothing at all and come with me. How could I have ever thought of leaving him behind?"

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

War & Peace (Part Three)

Interesting thematic conections seem to be getting developed as I move into the third part of the novel. In the second part, there was lots of discussion of the military manouvering and the chaos when things went wrong. Now we have marital as opposed to martial manouvers. The part starts by referring to Vasily not being a planner but being someone who just manages to get things lined up neatly without even trying. What he'd like to happen is for Pierre to marry his daughter, Héléne. All it takes, really, is to get Pierre to come stay with him in Petersburg. Once there, there is inevitably another party, at which Pierre is set up. Now, Pierre has known Héléne all his life, so she can look at him "with the beautiful bright smile that she gave to everyone" but he "was so used to that smile, and it had so little meaning for him, that he paid no attention to it". Not for long - he and she have been sent to talk to some old aunt:
He half rose, meaning to go round, but the aunt handed him the snuffbox, passing it behind Héléne's back. This caused Héléne to thrust forward to make room, and she looked round with another smile. She was wearing a fashionable evening dress cut very low at the front and back. Her bosom, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to his short-sighted eyes that he could hardly miss the vibrant delights [or, as the Maudes have it, living charm] of her neck and shoulders, and so near his lips that he was only a few inches away from kissing it all. He could sense the warmth of her body, the aroma of her perfume, and he could hear the slight creaking of her corset as she moved. What he saw was not marble beauty at one with her gown,what he saw and sensed was the sheer delight of her body, veiled from him only by her clothes. And once he had seen this, he could never again see it otherwise, just as we cannot reconstruct an illusion once it has been explained.
And so it was done, although Pierre is not yet ready to marry her. He did know then it would happen, even though he did not know whether that would be a good thing and indeed suspected it would not. Then he's all backwards and forwards, saying to himself "she's stupid", she's "forbidden fruit", Vasily might be a problem, she and her brother had been in love with each other until he caught himself smiling - another line of thought had sprung up. While thinking of her worthlessness he was also dreaming of how she would be his wife, how she would love him and become quite different, and how all he had thought and heard of her might be false. And he again saw her not as the daughter of Prince Vasily, but visualized her whole body only veiled by its gray dress.

Six weeks later, when he has still not done anything, Vasily does it for him! He simply congratulates Pierre on his engagement and there is no going back. There is a telling moment, albeit just a little overdone, when Pierre and
Héléne are alone. He is thinking that what is done is done, useless to ask whether it is good or bad, and at least it is something definite. He takes Héléne's hand, says Héléne and then thinks "hmm, now I know something special is to be said here but I am buggered if I can think what it might be". After she kisses him, he says "I love you", "remembering what has to be said at such moments: but his words sounded so weak that he felt ashamed of himself". This provides a nice contrast with Vasily's attempt to get his son, Anatole, married off to Marya Bolkonsky. Her father knew exactly what it meant when Vasily says he is coming to visit with him, and bringing the son along. There's a cute scene here: the servant has heard that Vasily is coming, so sweeps all the snow off the driveway to the house. When Prince Bolkonsy, a notoriously grumpy old sod, finds out that it has been done for that upstart Vasily, he orders the servant to put all the snow back. But on the whole, he comes off alright in this passage. Marya is ugly, no amount of fatherly love can escape that fact, so he knows exactly why Anatole might marry her and what kind of life she'll have with him, particularly when Anatole is already making eyes at Marya's French companion. But to tell her would unly undermine her confidence and would really be inspired by his wish that she never leave him (because he does love her). Our author resolves his dilemma: Marya catches Anatole with her maid, so when she is formally asked if she'll marry Anatole, she stoutly refuses, saying she never wants to leave her father.

The rest of the part is devoted to the war: the Russian army is preparing to attack Napoleon - this is the famous battle of Austerlitz. There has been quite a disagreement over tactics: the old guard wanted to wait and build up strength. The younger generals wanted to attack now, thinking Napoleon was weak, under strength and vulnerable while their own forces were bolstered by the presence of the Emperor (with whom 90% of the force was "in love"). They won the argument, a battle plan was drawn up,
with the comment made that it is down to vanity and rank to decide which plan is to be used, not practical matters like chances of success. As it happens, no-one really agrees with, understands or, when it comes down to it, follows the chosen plan.

Rostov, who really is starting to look like a twerp, is on sentry duty but drowsy, dreaming about meeting the emperor and not focussing on the job. If he had been, the Russians might have known there were 80,000 Frenchmen sitting across the creek, rather than the several miles away they were thought to be. On the morning of 20 October 1805, there is deep fog cover. The Russian army gets into a complete tangle, to the point that it engages itself in a gunfight at one stage, and loses all faith in its command. Napoleon is sitting on a hill, watching what he can and seeing the Russians basically move as he expected them to. So - rather than a Russian attack, he calls the shots and takes the high ground. At that point, most of the Russians seem to just run away. Quite a number of them try to flee across a frozen lake - the ice, of course, breaks.

Andrey is the hero - he grabs the regimental flag where it is dropped and tries hard to get his men behind him. Unfortunately, he is hit, and thought to be dead - even by the person who finds his apparent body: none other than Napoleon himself.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

War and Peace (Part 2)

Part 1 finished with Prince Andrey’s preparation for departure to the imminent war with Napoleon. Part 2 is entirely taken up with the first stages of that war, in Austria, which is the last line of defence. Vienna has already fallen and the Russian and Austrian armies are working together to keep Napoleon away. There is lots and lots of detail of the enemies getting closer and closer together, then their fighting. The remarkable thing is that the French outnumber the Russians by about 3 to 1, and yet in this part, success goes to the Russians. This is attributed partly to the bravery of the men, like the artilleryman Tushin who holds his position without any cover at all, and to their ability to outwit the French.

A change has come over Andrey:
scarcely a trace was left of his former affected languor and indolence. He now looked like a man who has time to think of the impression he makes on others, but is occupied with agreeable and interesting work. His face expressed more satisfaction with himself and those around him, his smile and glance were brighter and more attractive.
In short, he has the makings of a fine officer. When the fighting begins, he is willing to go right into the thick of things. For him, the chance of engagement with the enemy, while a bit scary, gives him joy and is his chance for personal glory: he reflects on the fact that Napoleon himself was a mere soldier who found his opportunities in war. When Andrey is wounded, he is sent to Brno (which is where the HQ has been set up after the taking of Vienna) to report that his bit of the army has repelled Napoleon. Andrey is thinking he has things made, that this can only be good for him to get known by the top brass. Unfortunately, his news is not taken well, and he’s feeling snubbed and down in the dumps. Although the explanation his diplomatic friend gives him helps (since the Austrians are losing left right and centre, news of a Russian victory is more like salt in the wounds than good news), it is really only when he returns to the fighting that he regains his mood.

Apart from Andrey, we also have young Prince Nikolay Rostov and someone not mentioned in my earlier post, a fellow called Dolokhov. He was with Pierre when the policeman was tied to the bear: for his part in that, Dolokhov has been reduced to the ranks, so here he is. There is a cute scene towards the end of the chapter where the French and Russian lines are so close, they can shout to each other. Dolokhov, ever the wit, does so – which sees the men on both sides having a good old shared laugh.
But the guns remained loaded, the loopholes in blockhouses and entrenchments looked out just as menacingly, and the unlimbered cannon confronted one another as before.
Dolokhov is actually a good soldier: it is reported to the General (who takes a special interest in him) that he took a French officer prisoner and did other good, warlike things. It is likely he will be given a reprieve.

Nikolay doesn’t have such a good time, although he proves his toughness when he finds his Quartermaster has stolen from his Commanding Officer and reports him, leading to a nice wee dilemma: the Colonel thinks it is better for the honour of the regiment to make a liar out of Rostov than have a thief in their midst. He is saved from retracting his report by the news that they have to start fighting. Unfortunately, he finds himself hit, his horse blown out from under him and some uncertainty in his mind as to which side of the line he was on:
Ah, here are people coming," he thought joyfully, seeing some men running toward him. "They will help me!" In front came a man wearing a strange shako and a blue [i.e. French] cloak, swarthy, sunburned, and with a hooked nose. Then came two more, and many more running behind. One of them said something strange, not in Russian. In among the hindmost of these men wearing similar shakos was a Russian hussar. He was being held by the arms and his horse was being led behind him.
Luckily, he can hide. The part ends with him remembering the nice things of home, wondering what the hell induced him to come to war:
There is no one to help me or pity me. Yet I was once at home, strong, happy, and loved.

In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

Ryu is the "other" Murakami, a lot less well known than Haruki: although they are unrelated, they are grouped together as representing Japan's Angry Young Men. Ryu tends to dig around in a more realistic gritty underworld than his more famous namesake. His first novel was Almost Transparent Blue, about young Japanese people in the 1970's, hanging out around an Air Force base, doing drugs and casual sex. Several of his works (he must have written more than 20 novels) have been made into movies.

In the Miso Soup came out in 1997 and was translated into English in 2003. It is an odd wee book, in that the author's concerns don't seem to be taken anywhere and there is far too much foreshadowing of the main story line. Essentially, "Frank" is a middle-aged American tourist who wants to be shown around Tokyo's nightlife, with some emphasis on getting laid. Kenji is his 20 year old guide - he's being doing this for a while now; having shown some 200 men around, he knows what's what.

From their initial contact, Kenji suspects something is strange, dangerous even, about Frank. At the time of Frank's call, Kenji was reading about a murdered schoolgirl, someone who had been raped and cut up. She was one of a growing number of girls who, not out of any kind of financial necessity, went on "compensated dates" and were "selling it". Periodically, there were further references to this kind of thing in the novel, as indications that life in Japan was under transformation and not in a good way. Tokyo's reputation is as a "department store for sex".

But Frank is something special. He creeps Kenji out - partly because his skin appears artificial, he doesn't have the kind of appealingly innocent smile Kenji has come to expect from Americans and his story about why he is in Tokyo sounds like a cover story:
I looked over at him as we walked past the Toyota lot, and a chill trickled down my spine. It was something about his posture in silhouette. he gave off this overpowering, almost tangible loneliness.

All Americans have something lonely about them. I don't know what the reason might be, except maybe they're all descended from immigrants. But Frank had taken it to an all new level. His cheap clothing and slovenly appearance had something to do with it ... he looked very old for his age. But it wasn't just that. There was a falseness about him, as if his whole existence was somehow made up.
Nonetheless, Kenji takes him on for three nights and, really, the first night isn't too bad. They go to a lingerie pub, where girls sit around in lingerie and talk about their dream to go to America and see Niketown (!). Frank turns out to be very funny - the whole bar is engrossed in his "japanese lesson". But they don't go anywhere near a sexual encounter: instead, the night finishes at a baseball batting machine thingey.

Night two, however, all of the little hints and suspicions coalesce. Frank and Kenji have had a remarkably boring night in a "match-making" pub. Five women are sitting at tables, each with a number. Frank fills in the form he's given to invite a couple of the ladies over and, man, were they, or at least the only one who did any talking, horrible. But the night trundles along until Frank is given the bill: that's when he runs amok (contrary to the claim made in the blurb, I did not laugh). Of course, Kenji is left wonderiong what the hell is to happen to him: his client has just killed seven people.

But there's a semi-mystical side to the story - we learn about Frank's history, the compulsion to kill he has had since he was about 3, the times he has spent in mental hospitals and his hope that he might somehow find peace in Japan. This is because of a Buddhist belief that there are 108 "bonno" (kind of worldy desires, bad instincts that make one lose their way): on New Year's Eve, 108 bells are rung to free the listeners from their bonno. Frank wants to listen to the bells. We never know what impact they have on him, because the novel finishes before they ring, but it does end with Frank actually doing something quite tender.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Broken Flowers

“What a load or rubbish, a complete waste of time.” Not my reaction, but that of the dear old souls who had chattered their way through the movie. It is a sentiment which seems to be quite popular: on the IMDB forums, there are those who say it is the worst movie ever made. I think the presence of Bill Murray might have led them to expect a reprise of Caddyshack. Even some Jarmusch purists are complaining that he has sold out, made the movie too accessible, starting with using Murray in the central role (as if using Johnny Depp was somehow not using a popular actor).

I really liked this movie. It is a fairly simple tale - Don receives a pink envelope containing a letter typed on pink paper,

ostensibly from a woman he had a relationship with 20 years earlier, saying that while she’d never told him, a son had been produced from their time together. That son was now in search of his father, and likely to find him. Don is a bit shaken by this news: his wannabe detective neighbour, Winston, is up to the task. He pushes Don to think back and identify the women he was with: it turns out that there were five women he had been close enough to at the time to be possible writers of the letter. Since the letter mentioned spending some time together, we’re not talking one night stands here – so five relationships, all close enough together so that they could have produced a nearly 20 year old son. Don Juan has nothing on Don Johnston! After eliminating one because she is dead, Winston organises for Don to go on a mission to “check up” on each, looking for clues, such as a fondness for pink or a typewriter. It is simply assumed that his arrival on the doorstep will not prompt a confession.

The four women were all quite different: we never really know what their attitude to Don is, our how things were between them when they split. Only the first (Laura, played by Sharon Stone) is actually pleased to see him,

but they get progressively more hostile. The second (Dora, played by Frances Conroy (Six Feet Under) is decidedly uptight: I couldn’t work out what her reaction is. I suspect a little fearful of her husband – to him, she is the “perfect little woman” – but he is quite keen to have Don stay for dinner. They eat the most awful looking processed food – Don won’t eat it at all, except for a line of carrots. Then the next woman, Carmen (Jessica Lange) who is incredibly fake (an “animal communicator”) says she doesn’t eat, when he asks her if she’ll have dinner. It is something she really doesn’t want to do, but he’s not picking up on it – I rather suspect that Carmen and her assistant (Chloë Sevigny) are together. Then he’s out in redneck territory for Penny (an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton)

– he only has to ask if she has kids and she’s all upset and the guys are swarming around our Don, giving him a beating. She does, however, have a pink typewriter.

I think Don does learn something on this journey. He is watching a movie about Don Juan as the movie opens, and there are plenty who refer to him as one. The truth is better put by the woman we see dumping him: he’s too old to get away with the Don Juan thing any longer, and ought really settle down with someone of an appropriate age. I think that he comes to recognize the truth of this: sure, he does get to sleep with Laura, and it looked like he might be welcome back, but he encounters plenty of women as he moves about, women he’s interested in but does nothing about because they are now out of his reach, too young.

I also think Jarmusch had a lot of fun embedding clues in the movie that didn’t mean anything - symbols and connections you can’t trust. There was the fact that the letter was pink: it turns out that all of the women demonstrate some interest in pink things. The last even has a pink typewriter. But when he gets back, he gets another pink letter, but not from the same person as the first. There were strange things going on with names: he was Don Johnston, so several thought of Don Johnson, yet one immediately knew him as his wife’s old flame. Carmen’s pet, the one who got her into being an “animal communicator” was also Winston. His first two women had rhyming names - Laura and Dora: her husband was Ron, which he pointed out rhymed with Don. I really don’t think these things meant a thing. Then there was Laura’s daughter; she seems pretty promiscuous from the start, walks around Don naked, is Lolita.

And yet, Don attributes significance to seeing a young fellow twice, a pink ribbon he’s carrying and the fact that fatherhood “is not a real good thing to talk about”: he becomes convinced this fellow is his son. And maybe he is: we never find out.

The overwhelming thing about this film is that it is very much a visual document: there is not a whole lot of talking, it doesn’t seem to be a big thing for Don these days. Instead, there are long lingering takes in which nothing much happens - I got the sense that Don had become becalmed.

War and Peace (Part 1)

I should really have done this as I read through Ulysses last year, put some comments down as I read by way of aide memoire. Ah well, since I enrolled last night for my Honours dissertation, I'm sure things are going to get more geeky and intense here as the year goes by.

I ended up opting for the Penguin version of War and Peace, translated by Anthony Briggs. Apart from the truly cheap looking Wordsworth Classics version, it was all the UBS had and I wanted to get reading, as bookclub meets to discuss it in just under four weeks. So far, I have read one section, around 120 pages. It is good at setting the scene, putting the events into some sort of historical context and introducing the main characters. Strangely enough, it isn't the Russian names that have proved difficult to keep track of, rather Tolstoy occasionally simply refers to a character as the "princess", when there might be three in the room. Yes, it is that sort of book: these are people with a very high profile: the first person we meet is some sort of lady in waiting to the Empress.

We learn fairly early on that Bonaparte (or, if you want to express your contempt for him, Buonaparte) is posing a very real threat to Russia and that its allies cannot be relied upon:
Buonaparte was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He has got splendid soldiers. Besides he began by attacking Germans. And only idlers have failed to beat the Germans. Since the world began everybody has beaten the Germans. They beat no one - except one another. He made his reputation fighting them.
Russia is thus facing war with him, leading people to work out where their allegiences lie and whether they themselves will go to fight. There is an interesting tension provided by the fact that despite Buonaparte having control of France, there are a few French people about and, thanks largely to Catherine the Great, to speak French is how to be posh in early 19th century Russia.

So far, four big family names feature:
  1. Kuragin - Vasily is the father, he has three children, Hippolyte, the debauched Anatole and the heavenly Héléne;
  2. Bolkonsky - the patriarch is Prince Nikoláy, who is a cranky old sod with a very rigourous routine. He lives in the country out from Moscow. His son, Andrey is married to the cutest princess imaginable, Lise. He hates marriage rather than her. His sister, Marya, lives with her dad but there is a plot to marry her off to Anatole as a means of calming him down. Might be why marriage is regarded with disfavour by some of the men;
  3. Bezukhov - the old count actually dies in this opening part. He has a string of illegitimate children, but Pierre is his favourite and is given a deathbed acknowledgement as his heir. This REALLY annoys Vasily, who was also a contender. As the old count is taking his last breath in the next room, he and his cousin and some woman called Anna are in an unseemly scramble for possession of what is believed to be his last will;
  4. Rostov - another big Moscow family. There is a big dinner party to celebrate the name days of mother and daughter Natalya/Natasha. The younger is a mere 13, but is in love with a young outsider, Boris, who has just been given some sort of position in the war machine. They plan to be engaged in four years.
There is quite an emphasis on changing of the guard, what with the old count dying and Prince Nikoláy thinking he is the last of the old timers left. There are a couple of paintings of Catherine the Great hanging around - one wonders how long that will continue.

Now, Anatole is the great dissapointment to his faily, what with his drinking, gambling and refusal to be serious. He only has to make a suggestion and Pierre jumps in - leading to a great story:
Those three got hold of a bear somewhere, put it in a carriage, and set off with it to visit some actresses! The police tried to interfere, and what did the young men do? They tied a policeman and the bear back to back and put the bear into the Moyka Canal. And there was the bear swimming about with the policeman on his back!

Pierre is not all bad, however. Here he is with his father dying:

As to the last meeting between father and son, it was so touching that she could not think of it without tears, and did not know which had behaved better during those awful moments - the father who so remembered everything and everybody at last and had spoken such pathetic words to the son, or Pierre, whom it had been pitiful to see, so stricken was he with grief, though he tried hard to hide it in order not to sadden his dying father. "It is painful, but it does one good. It uplifts the soul to see such men as the old count and his worthy son," said she. Of the behavior of the eldest princess and Prince Vasili she spoke disapprovingly, but in whispers and as a great secret.
Of course, now that he has 4000 serfs and millions of roubles, mamas are forgiving him his lack of manners, his belief in Bonaparte, and are simply seeing him as a suitable match for their daughters.

The chapter finishes with a fairly gruff sort of parting between Prince Nikoláy and his son, Andrey, who is going off to war. Lise, who is pregnant, is to be left with her father in law. She is, naturally, dead scared but Andrey is no comfort at all (although he does ask his dad to at least make sure there is a doctor on hand for the birth).

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Nói The Albino

This is a very low key movie! The video had been sitting in Civic Video for months, tantalising me: the fact it was on video was one of the reasons for me finding a video player on trademe, since almost everything else comes on DVD these days.

The story is very simple: Nói (who doesn't seem to be an albino at all) lives in a small town in Iceland. There is talk that he might be the village idiot, but I tend to think he is simply too smart for it: he is, after all, able to solve Rubik's Cube while being chastised (in a very gentle way) by his headmaster and discusses Kierkegaard. His town simply has nothing to offer him but there is no way out: school is boring, the only job possibility for him seems to be as a gravedigger (in Iceland, remember, so it has got to be hard work!), his dad is a bit of a layabout (no doubt, representing Nói's own future), he has no friends. Not, that is, until Iris turns up to work at the local service station: he is told by her dad to keep his hands off her or be killed, but Nói doesn't listen.

So, the movie is largely about (a) what this small town life is like (I never imagined that Kareoke had got so far!) and (b) Nói's attempts to escape it. He wants Iris to run away with him, he does make a dash for it at one stage but is foiled by nature, and so he spends a lot of time retreating to his basement hideaway under a trapdoor or looking at pictures of palmtrees on some South Pacific Paradise through a vewmaster. The turning point comes when Nói, already a poor attender at school, has a taperecorder deputise for him: this angers the otherwise kindly headmaster so much that Nói is expelled. After that, there is nowhere for him to go and his need to leave becomes more urgent. In a fairly rare moment of humour, albeit bleak, he tries to rob the local bank, to be told "go home, Nói".

Every so often, the camera would linger upon the surrounding (small) mountains - I'm not sure whether in a premonitary manner or not, but there is a sudden edge introduced to the film when Nói has his fortune told. He is a disbeliever, and so expects a vague prediction of change: the fortune telling fellow reads the tealeaves, shudders and only when pressed says "I can only see death". Sure enough, there is a tragedy which wipes out nearly everyone in the village who matters to Nói, leaving him to re-imagine his life.

The team making this film ran a fairly big risk, that of making a boring film in their efforts to depict a boring life, but there was enough drama to keep my interest and I found myself hoping that, somehow, Nói would get ahead. It would be horrible to see him in 25 or 30 years, still there like his father, drinking heavily and obsessed with someone as irrelevant to Iceland as Elvis Presley.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Les Soeurs Fâchées (2004)

This is the third of my three holiday movies, seen in the confines of the Cloisters in the Christchurch Art Centre. It has a total of 11 seats, very comfortable, but it is a tight squueze: the seat in front of me had to be folded forward like in a two-door car to let the back seat viewers in. I was pleased that, despite the smallness of the audience (it was a full house), I managed to sit beside someone who laughed at pretty much all the same places I did.

Martine, played by Isabelle Huppert, is the big-city big sister: she at first seems to think she has it all - nice apartment, fancy lifestyle, no need to work. It is a life of making all the right moves at the right time and place. The reality is she has nothing: her best friend and her husband are sleeping together, she can't actually do anything, detests herself. She's your typical snobby poor little rich girl - perhaps over-compensating for her past (mum is apparently locked up somewhere as an alcoholic).

Funny little sister, Louise, (Catherine Frot) is a hairdresser in the provinces, she has come to the big city for some meeting that Martine doesn't want to know about. A couple of times Martine turns to Louise for help to get over who she has become, but for the most part is very dismissive of her.

It is probably jealousy - Louise has written a novel, which is why she's in town. Of the 12 strong publishing panel who read it, the only ones who didn't like it are those who loved it - a cheque is written on the spot. Then at some dinner party Martine has thrown, Louise captivates the audience with her tale of confronting some man she'd had her eye on and making a go of a relationship: she is openly in love, something Martine can't even aspire to.

Of course, there is a final showdown, in which Martine throws Louise out for being happy. Earlier, she'd said "Happiness: there's more to life than that." The film ends with a strangely open-ended scene: Martine goes to the train station where she and Louise just smile at each other.

The key to this movie is just how well the two actresses play their parts and the lines they are given to deliver - pretty sharp. I don't think I'll be rushing out to buy the DVD, but I'm glad I saw it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Amores Perros (2001)

Things start with a bang in this movie: two young guys are driving their car down some urban street, talking about how the near dead dog on the back seat was shot and might not make it. Then there are more guys in a bright yellow truck chasing them gun in hand - why? We don't know. Instead of telling us, the car crashes into another and catches fire.

The opening credits roll, and then the first third of the movie fills in how we get to the car crash. Octavio (Gael García Bernal) is living in cramped quarters with his brother Ramiro and sister-in-law, Susana. Ramiro is hyper and violent: he makes his living by working in a drug store and occasionally robbing it. Octavio is in love with Susana and finds that he can make a living by entering his dog, Cofi, into dog fights. With the money he is making, he wants Susana to run away with him. There are plenty of dog-fighting scenes which, despite being simulated, were pretty hard to take. About 15 fights into his career, Cofi is lined up against Jarocho's latest find for the biggest purse so far: rather than let the fight proceed, Cofi is shot, Jarocho is stabbed and thus we get the car-chase scene with which the movie opened.

The second segment is about the occupant of the other car, Valeria: she is a top fashion model who has seduced Daniel away from his wife. I think there is a point being made here about the randomness of fate: she is not insulated by her position in society. After the crash, of course, there is no modelling for her: most of the action is in her apartment, where the relationship between her and Daniel gets nmore and more tense. Given that he had left one woman to come to her, I was surprised he stuck it out so long when things got tough. There was also a dog in this scene: a stupid rich person's dog, the sort that gets carried around. He manages to fall through a hole in the floor and can't get out, can't even be located for days. Stupid. Sure, the dog is just as trapped as Valeria is, but I'm not convinced this added much.

The third segment is a bit more random: El Chivo ("the goat") is simply an onloooker, an apparently homeless man pushing a barrow of junk around. He picks Cofi up and takes him home to join his collection of stray dogs, where he nurses him back to health (with tragic results). It turns out that El Chivo has quite a back story - he had a nice middle class background but threw it all away to pursue his political beliefs, thinking he could make the world a better place. Instead, he was imprisoned for 20 odd years. His daughter thinks he is dead: El Chivo wants to pick up his relationship with her, but clearly doesn't know how. In the meantime, he is a contract killer, much richer than his appearance as a bum would suggest.

He provides a kind of moral centre to the movie: after he finally makes contact with his daughter, he is commissioned to kill one brother at the behest of the other. Instead, he kidnaps them both and makes them face up to each other: if one wants the other dead, he'll have to do it himself. References to Cain and Abel are made.

Finally, we are back to the other brothers: Octavio and Ramiro, who also takes a punt at the biggest job of his life, by robbing a bank. At least, he tries to. Octavio is still in love with Susana, still wants her to run away with him - the movie ends with the scene in the bus station where he finally finds out whether she will or not.

The title refers to love, and apparently means "life is a bitch" (my poor spanish wants to translate perros as danger, but that may well not be right.) Certainly, love is not easy in this movie: as brothers, we might expect some love between Octavio and Ramiro but instead, Ramiro threatens to kill his younger bro and rips him off. Ramiro's love is for his sister-in-law and it doesn't exactly go too well for him. Daniel's love for Valeria is stretched beyond breaking point by her insane demands and I have no clue as to whether she loved him. His wife clearly does and, again, it goes badly. El Chivo is the only one who really loves: he is clearly pining for his daughter but doesn't want to interfere (there is a cute pair of scenes involving her picture of him - he breaks in to provide an updated headshot for the photo, twice). Whether he actually ends up in a better place than, say, Octavio is less than clear.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Pride and Prejudice (2005)

New Year's Day, 2006: the one screening the Mayfair Cinema in Kaikoura had for the day was this movie - I thought I'd missed my chance to see it on the big screen, so leapt at it (not that the screen in the Mayfair is particularly big). It is a while since I saw the BBC version, even longer since I read the book, but seeing Bride and Prejudice last month provided a nice appetiser.

Of course, the film owes its storyline and dialogue to Jane Austen, so the big question is whether it works. Because this is such a hugely romantic story, the shoes of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are two of the biggest ever to fill. I remember my first reaction to reading Pride and Prejudice was of being fully in love with Elizabeth: female friends told me rather drily that that was entirely the point. While I could fully buy Jennifer Ehle in the role (and Colin Firth, for that matter) I had more trouble with Keira Knightly - maybe she is simply too young for me to find appealing. It took me a long time to warm to her - not until her showdown with Darcy, where she tells him to bugger off, which I thought she carried off very well. Until then, she'd seemed too, um, girly and insubstantial. Even Aishwarya Rai in Bride and Prejudice had been more believable.

At least I did accept her - I still don't get Matthew MacFadyen as Darcy (although he was great in In My Father's Den) - he never really had that forbidding coldness thing going on that Firth brought to the role, just seemed like a stuffed shirt, and never struck me as at all sexy. What do I know, though! Pretty much everyone at IMDB disagrees with me - there are lots of comments about his raw, brooding and vulnerable performance. Mind you, a lot seem to go for him simply because he is "hot", as an instant reaction, which isn't quite how Darcy is to be taken. So - count me as being in the minority camp: those who don't really see why this Lizzie and this Darcy would ever get it together.

Two characters who really did stand out for me were two of the more minor: Tom Hollander as Mr Collins (I don't even recognise him from his photo) excelled as did Talulah Riley as the hovering on the edge Mary Bennet.

Of course, the whole Lizzie-Wickham romantic detour is pretty much completely absent: kind reviewers attribute it to the length of the movie, but it was well developed in Bride and Prejudice. Curiously enough, as I was watching that movie, it struck me that the whole marriage as market thing which was so vital for the 18th century Brits probably retains that emphasis in India today, which gave a nice sort of logic to shifting the whole story there.

Friday, January 06, 2006


There is an interesting degree of correspondence between Nigel Cox (author of this novel) and Martin Rumsfield (the central character). For example, both grew up in Wellington, both moved to Berlin, both worked in project management and publicity for the Jewish Museum and, by the time you finish reading this novel, it seems inevitable that Rumsfield will be leaving soon. There's also a cute reference by Rumsfield to passing by the windows of Unity Books, where Cox worked.

I'd say that the essence of this novel is that Rumsfield is growing up (finally: he is 51!) and realising that others, such as his teenaged daughter, Sally, can be affected by his actions and that that should provide a guide for how he acts: hence the title. There is a vague hint at a feeling of responsibility for the holocaust as well, but this idea certainly is not developed.

That sounds serious, but the context for this morality is a pretty funny story, which gives the novel its momentum. When he was much younger, he had a mate, Shake (in some sort of weird homage to Shakin' Stevens - responsbile for such musical marvels as Green Door and This Ole House), who claimed to be a private investigator: he'd have Rumsfield follow various people about as his "Special Assistant" and so on. Nothing ever seemed to go right and really, Shake was probably just doing everything for his own amusement.

Of course, Shake turns up in Berlin: Rumsfeild is now married with children and doing his best as parent and father but Shake is a welcome diversion. He has a mad scheme: he thinks that behind the Nigerian letter scam, there really is a bunch of money and the key to wherever it might be is locked away in the Nigerian embassy in Berlin. He needs Rumsfield's help to break in. The promise of 100,000 Euros for a night's work is too great a temptation: it would, for a start, allow a return home.

This is where things turn a bit sour for our hero: Shake seems to have had a strange effect on the teenage daughter. She is also used in Shake's plan, to distract some guards; it is when she goes missing that night in Berlin, dressed as a hooker, that Rumsfeild feels his responsibilities quite keenly. There's a pretty tender scene when he rescues her from the predicament she has got into.

Just as well: earlier, it seemed that Rumsfield was taking a rather non-fatherly interest in his daughter:
Sally was also uninhibited, but in a different way. She undresses, in a bright pocket of sunlight, as slowly as possible... She has an immense towel, utterly white, and, standing on it, her skin is dramatically brown. She applies coconut oil, slowly, which adds to its lustre. She's naked, of course. Completely, and completely oblivious. Completely absorbed in the slow movement of her hands over her glowing skin, while she moves to some slow exotic music. Completely, utterly, entirely uninterested in whether every single eye in the area is focussed on her.
Not so much, as it happens: Germans are apparently "grown up" about bodies and so pay little heed to such a spectacle. The person most interested seems to be her father - maybe the problem here is simply that he is employed as the narrator, but doing so leaves a funny taste about the nature of his observation of his daughter: not just here, but in other parts of the book.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The World's Fastest Indian

I almost didn't see this movie - the idea of some old timer breaking a land speed record on a creaky old motorbike didn't really do it for me. Then, when lots of people were talking about it and even my mother was keen to see it, I had trouble fitting it in, what with me moving about the country and it being on at random times. Finally, in Napier, I wandered into the theatre to see what was on and it was about to start. Now - I'm wondering why Burt Munro is not a better known name in New Zealand history. Not only did he break plenty of local and world land speed records, but he's a Kiwi battler to beat all battlers.

The opening of the movie could only have been shot in New Zealand - we get a quarter acre section with a concrete block shed (which turns out to be Burt's HQ and house), a Vauxhall parked beside it, a corrugated iron fence and one of those square, fibrolite walled tile-roofed houses next door, much like the government issue one I grew up in.

It is a crazy sort of story - in the early 1960's Burt, who has potentially fatal health problems, finally makes the push to achieve his life-long dream: to do the time trials on the salt flats in Bonneville. He is over 60 and his bike isn't much younger - it is an 1920's Indian Scout, with an original top speed of 55 miles an hour. Burt has, um, done some work on her in the meantime. There's a whole book (One Good Run: The Legend of Burt Munro, Tim Hanna, Penguin) devoted to the technical detail of that work -its not the sort of thing that means much to me, but I gave the book to my brother for Christmas because that's his life.

Of course, to his neighbours he's just a nuisance - making all sorts of noise at weird times - and no-one thinks he has a show, except for the kid next door. But just as he is leaving town there is an act of faith, from a very unexpected source: a group of thugs on motorbikes.

There's a Lost In Translation sort of feel to the USA when Burt first gets there - the Customs people are quite alarmed that he has an Indian in a crate - but he manages to make mates wherever he goes, even with those competing against him at Bonneville. He has quite a few hassles even getting to run because, in his innocence, he's done nothing to register or to ensure that his bike does anything like meet safety requirements. The thing that most worried me about the bike is that it is like a tin can: he is almost horizontal with his feet jammed inside the covers - I have no idea how he's supposed to stop the thing without it falling over every time. The story at this point seems to borrow from subsequent visits to the salt flats - including the speed he is said to achieve and his methods used to avoid speed wobbles.

The film is really about its central character: the whole thing stands on what sort of man Burt was and how well Anthony Hopkins portayed him. I rather suspect that we're presented with a slightly buffed up picture of Burt to give him a wider appeal, but no matter. As almost everyone over at the IMDB website are saying, Hopkins did an amazing job of bringing him to life - apparently Hopkins is on record as saying it is his own best work. The funny thing about his accent is that he sounded more distinctively Kiwi than any of the local actors - no doubt because he had to learn and portray the Southland accent. One nice touch: when Burt had to go into hospital for some tests, he was attended by the person who plays Louise in Mercy Peak. I know one thing: once this comes out on DVD, I'll be buying myself a copy.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

So, This is 2006?

I'm already feeling like I want a refund! I was so unenthused about getting back to work that yesterday, despite it being only mid-afternoon as I drove through Oamaru, I stopped and booked into the YHA. It created the illusion that my break wasn't quite over - to the point that I almost booked into Stafford Gables as well. It was a nice pause, allowing me to check out the two new coffee shops, one of which (Steam) even does its own roasting and, what's more, allows its customers to roast their own. I could only imagine what sort of disaster it would have been had I been set loose: I was content to let them do the job. The other, Short Black, had stunning serving staff but very underpowered coffee.

But Oamaru was also the scene of the third (and admittedly most trivial) disappointment of my trip: my $10 hairdresser has gone out of business. The horror! The horror! Slightly more disappointing was when I turned into Huia Street, in Palmerston North, to check out the house I used to live in: it was gone! So, too, was every other house in the street - it is now basically a paddock of hay overdue for cutting, into which concrete tongues periodically intrude and in the middle of which a solitary garage remains. But most important was the news we received on Boxing Day: in the early hours of the morning, my Uncle Broomie had died. Not that I knew him very well - my one lasting recollection of him is how he made me, when I was 11, spend the day in the hot Southland sun, picking up potatoes. A few years ago, he and my Auntie Jean moved to Riverton with big plans to start a guest house of some sort but such was the state of his health that they never even got started.

The holiday away was pretty uneventful: I had wanted to get away about 1 on the Thursday before Christmas so told everyone I was leaving at 3:03 as I knew from past experience that that was more likely. I had no idea that it would be after 7 before I finally hit the road or that I'd be sitting in Amberly eating an awful pie a mere 3 hours before ferry time. Had to hurry the last bit. My special treat for myself was to stay in something called the Wellesley in Wellington: actually the Wellesley Club, the kind of place where Supreme Court Judges take their clerks to dine - all oak panelling, clawfoot baths and billiard tables a mile long. Thanks to wotif, it was almost as cheap as Webster's parking - $3 for a half hour!!! After Christmas with the folks (and the obligatory boat trip in my brother's tin can, this time on Lake Roto-Iti), I got as far north as Tauranga, where my brother has just bought a hugely expensive house, before heading down the East Coast for home. I did like Tokomaru and Tolaga Bays and spent a fair while admiring the collection of David Brown tractors used to pull boats in and out at Mahia: of that entire sector of the trip, however, I was most impressed by Opotoki - it had a good vibe to it and I loved the Two Fish cafe. If I'd been sensible I'd have stayed there a bit longer and taken a short-cut to Napier, or missed Napier out altogether: evidently I am not.

New Year's Eve, unlike last year, was spent in company: a free, all ages, open air Fur Patrol gig in the Palmerston North Square. The audience was a major annoyance: where I was, it seemed to be comprised of mid-teens, predominantly female. They'd get the start of a song and squeal with excitement. Fine, no problem. Then they'd get a text and squeal with excitment. Then they'd see a friend and squeal with excitement. Then they'd take a breath of air and sqeal with excitement. Then the crowd would rotate, there'd be the start of a new song, and so the process went. But it was good to see the band again: Julia was in fine form. Some clever dick wanted her to do some covers of some good music: she agreed to do some covers of that great band, Fur Patrol. A few clamoured for Lydia but it was curiously absent from the playlist - despite featuring in their Wellington gig (apparently).

In Christchurch, I did something shocking. I stopped at Riccarton Mall, as I always do, and went into Borders. Nothing shocking about that, but I spent more than an hour in there and didn't buy any books!! (well, except for a curry cookbook and a Lonley Planet diary). In fact, the whole trip was a bit short on book buying: I stole a copy of Chuck
Palahniuk's Haunted from some hostel's book exchange and bought Zadie Smith's latest and that was about it. Oh, and I stopped in every Warehouse looking for $5 bargains, not unsuccessfully. But my sights seem to have been more focussed on the audio-visual - I looked at lots of bigscreen TV's, DVD players and so on and seem to have got back home with a van stuffed full of DVD's and a Home Theatre System I accidentally bought off trademe on its way to me. I think I know what I am doing this summer!