new zealand


I persevered with this book because the author is a Kiwi and I wanted give him a fair go, but for the life of me I’m still not entirely sure what in the hell Burnt Ice is. And that fact pretty much sums the novel up.

This is a spoiler alert.

I’m suspicious that burnt ice refers to a period the crew spend inside a comet travelling between star systems. The galling thing is that the chain of events that get them to this point are strange. Wheeler has an impressive imagination, but the plot of this novel is non-existent. The chapters are a series of vignettes strung together without any real semblance of continuity, the characters appallingly one-dimensional, and the emphasis almost exclusively placed on “nifty ideas” that are sprinkled through the pages like leavening.

As an example, the first chapter or so is centred on introducing a critical, all important star system that our soldier heroes are transported to. So far, so good. But then, as if out of the blue this base is assaulted by sentient squid that are barely mentioned except as back-drop for the remainder of the “story”. This leaves the reader asking, “wtf?”, “where did they come from?”, “what was their beef with the humans?”, “if they’re attacking us, are they the bad guys?”, and “why did a couple of them sample the tissue of one of our characters, but this is never used in the story?”. The entire chapter could have been dispensed with and covered with the line, “after the attack of the squidlings was repulsed, they sent some heroes out to the galaxy to get answers.”

And… that pretty much sums up the whole novel. Where there should be action, there is a paragraph and we’re done. Where there should be tech that makes up the background and adds colour to the story, we have extended descriptions and pointless blather.

Two-word review: End already.

SOLO

Curtains open on a small flat. To stage right is a door leading to outside. To stage left is a door leading to a bedroom. Between the two runs a kitchenette with stove and oven, a sink, small cupboards. A fridge stands next to the bedroom door. Above the kitchenette is a double window with net curtains. In stage front is a couch facing towards audience. A small coffee table is positioned in front of couch.

Scene One: (more…)

I’m nine and we’re sitting at the living room table she made a year or so back. It was a full dining room table but she cut down the legs, sanded it back. I remember gouging it with a fork handle in a fit of pique, a childish anger vented at some one thing she must have been proud of.

I’m looking at the empty grooves now, and asking,

“Is this tea?”

“Be quiet and eat.”

“But it’s just weetbix.”

“The benefit isn’t till tomorrow, so eat up.”

“But it’s breakfast isn’t it?”

“Just eat up.”

It’s a story I tell for years, of the superimposition of hunger by ‘our situation’. In retrospect it’s the one thing I associate with benefit dependency, the constant hunger, not only for basic nutrition, but for the many small things others take for granted you lack. The small luxuries and the simple things you cannot afford. A hunger for invaluables like comfort, security, certainty.

You see these things among people you consider rich, and you crave them. You hoard small objects, the cast offs of the better offs, and you think yourself lucky to have snatched such prizes.

I remember being perhaps 10, or 11, and sitting on the floor of the dining room reading Australian Womens Weekly Cookbook, a glossy A4 softcover filled with large pictures of simple foods. Brandy snaps. Yorkshire pudding. The pages were something I would treasure, the details of the recipes something I would pore over, a series of simple how-to pictures I must have subconsciously replicated here on this very blog. I would look at these foods and yearn for the ingredients, the know-how. But to practice we would need more than what we had. And what we had wasn’t enough.

So where are the choices in that? We were making the right life choices. We were frugal as our station demanded. We made the most of what we had. But still we ate cereal for dinner while our neighbours’ cat ate gravy beef.

What is it about dependency that means you must suffer in silence the ire of those who consider themselves your betters?

I sit now in comfort, folded in the bounty of the middle classes, and I look back to those days as a hazy memory, and I’m thankful to be free of then. I can sit now and listen to people run down the poor to someone the feel is a social equal, and while I no longer feel myself an interloper, I sometimes feel I have abandoned my past, that I have turned my back on what it was to be both hungry and undeserving.

Until I see the ire acted out again, as if by rote, an endless script of hate and condescension.

The story wasn’t over really. That boy is still in the field, and he still has explaining to do.

Although the death of my father is a significant event, it was something I was unaware of until my early 20s. Before then was another tale of sorrow, one which was of course intimately tied to the events following that death, but which must be properly considered another chapter.

However, since completing that first chapter a great many things have come to preoccupy my time, concurrent to which has been a vastly greater ease of sleeping. I am not, it seems, compelled to sit late at night and summon forth the ghosts of the past.

Searching within for the reason for the departure of that complusion I remembered writing Solo, a work I wanted to put together as a play in the time before Chef Du Plunge. I had been living by myself in a basement flat in Mt Cook, and had made the most of the isolation to tell a tale you will of course see woven into the first chapter of this work.

I’ve extracted the play from a folder within a folder on a drive I use to store those old things, and will tidy it up over the weekend.

Perhaps we can finally give that child the piece he deserves.

So it’s 1982 and I’m standing on the porch watching Mum move a sack of spuds out of the shed and towards the car. I can see it like it’s yesterday, her with her shoulders slanted, a fag hanging out her mouth, high elbow pointed upwards and she grunts and hauls the rough fabric.

“Whatchadoin?”

“Taking these round to Marion and Barry.”

“Can I come?”

“Get in.”

I’ve grown accustomed to not talking much in the car, so we sit silently while she drives out and up to Papamoa Beach Road and along the long empty stretch of lupins and grasses out to their place. There’s old pines and that half-round hay shed that’s been there forever. There’s graying fences and the occasional car parked up at the roadside, occupants over the at the nudey beach.

She flicks ash out the window.

When we stop the scene’s reversed, with her popping fag between lips again and hauling the spuds out of the boot. She carries them across the driveway and into the house, not pausing to knock, and heads up the stairs. I follow diligently, my head popping up past the guard rail just as she’s putting the spuds down in the kitchen. The first thing I see is Barry sitting there at the table.

His shoulders are square and he’s sitting bolt upright, his narrow face weather-beaten and slightly strained. His forearms are resting on the table and his hands are fists. His hair has been combed to one side with his fingers. Tears roll down his cheeks.

“Ya didn’t have to.” He murmurs.

I look across as Marion speaks. “Liz, you can’t afford those either. Take them home, we’ll be alright.”

She looks at me and says, “We’re leaving before they make us take them.”

And just like that, we walk out, and climb into the car.

So why you say? Well, ’82 was the time when the government took away all the fishing rights and Barry has a boat parked up at the wharves in Tauranga that can’t work. It’s been months and they have three kids to feed. A mortgage to pay. And they have nothing.

But us? We have a Widow’s Benefit keeping us going. The money is barely enough to keep us in clothes and shoes, but Liz takes the food out of our mouths and takes it over to their place, leaving them enough to see them through.

And we don’t talk about it on the way home. I just sit and look out the window and wonder about a better time. A time when I’ll understand what just happened. A time when a gift of charity like that will be more than a moral lesson for me, and more like a something I’ll need do myself. A time when I’m a man who’ll have an inkling of what it must be like to not have any way to feed your kids. A time when I’ll remember that what I saw was the real New Zealanders, the ones who give a fuck about the pöhara because, they are the pöhara.

****************
Of course, I wrote this before Christchurch, where everyone, rich and poor is pulling together.

I’ll bring you all back to this when the disaster ends, and we again start talking about what we do with the poor.

You. Yeah, yooou.
Ah FFS… Not You (you muppet). YOU.
Finally… what the hell does it take to make you people listen?
Right. All you people over there take a look at his guy.
Looking?
Right. He, this slightly oily looking bloke, is not a New Zealander.
Right right, yell all the heck you want you’re just making dicks of yourselves and proving my point.
Real New Zealanders don’t make a fuss.
Yes Yes I know that’s “a little bit controversial” but if you can’t face facts then you’re also not a real New Zealander.
“If we’re not New Zealanders what are we!” you say?
Easy question.
You’re hired help.
Weeeelll you can whinge all you bloody like about me saying that, it’s a free country after all, and if don’t like it you can bloody piss off back to Kraplackystan or wherever the hell it is all you people come from.
Racist? Me? What? Look people I’m not saying that I don’t like you, just that you’re… you’re… well… not one of us.
Yes yes, enough of the bloody yelling, didn’t I already say that real New Zealanders don’t make a fuss? You’re just proving my point.
And! To prove it, look at that bloke.
No, him. Yes, him, the white bloke.
Jesus… bloody hard to get you excitable types to focus, ain’t it?
He’s not a New Zealander either.
Well, he speaks with a funny accent.
Maybe French or something.
And no I don’t know how the hell he got in here.
There’s still that boat incident, and don’t think we’ve forgotten the World Cup…
The commonsense fact of the matter is that if you speak funny you’re not really welcome here and you certainly are not, in point of fact, a New Zealander.
What about that white bird you say?
South African.
Doesn’t count.
No that isn’t a double standard and don’t start with all this bloody waving of the arms and demanding ‘something be done’, or ‘I can say things like that’ because I just did.
Hmmm… how in the hell did you get into my neighbourhood anyway?
No, no, nothing, never mind.
Look, if you aren’t really ready to accept the rules then maybe you shouldn’t have bothered coming here in the first place.
Well, we make the rules.
Me and everyone who’s like me.
Well, it doesn’t matter if we’re not a majority because we’re the ones who’re making the rules, and you’re some powerless hired help.
(At least until we deport you…)
Nothing! I said nothing.
Look, the simple fact of the matter is that New Zealander means what we want it to mean, and all you slightly yelly people fall outside the meaning.
OK, OK, maybe if one of your kids actually plays for the All Blacks or storms Monte Cassino or something we’ll reconsider…
Until then, well, quiet in the cheap seats.

In large part I felt compelled to review this book because it seems to have been written about my childhood. Pearson is of an age similar to mine, and experienced many of the same loves and hates in the world of toys. He writes for example of playing with that boy-doll ‘Action Man’, and loving Airfix toy soldiers.

Achtung Schweinhund is the tale of the boys own adventure, all written in a light, funny, and accessible style. Pearson has a wry sense of humour he deploys to full effect describing the characters he failed to grow up with in 1960s and 1970s England.

Of particular interest though, and the main reason I wanted to put up a review, is his description of the sorts of comics read by British boys in during his childhood. Where in the US comics were (and are ) populated with fantasy heroes and unobtainable women, Pearson states quite rightly that British comics were not. Where the US were colour and seemed obsessed with muscles, but the difference was more fundemental. In particular:

the nature of the heroes differed wildly. The American kids had Spiderman, Daredevil, Batman and Thor. British kids had the Second World War… The men who saved our world didn’t have extraordinary powers, fancy gadgets or bizarre costumes (though Keith’s dad sometimes wore his old jungle hat when he pruned the roses and Mr Maynard who helped sink the Tirpitz owned a colour telly). Our superheroes were our dads, uncles, and grandfathers, and there’s something rather touching in that.

Personally, never a more true word has been written about my own childhood.

A great read if you are of an age, and have hobbies you’d prefer not to share with the world at large.

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