Another World

We have just returned from yet another trip to India, a country that continues simultaneously to delight, confuse, entertain and alarm.

In Bombay (as locals still have it), we met up with American and Australian friends. That was a complete surprise for one of them celebrating a “biggish” birthday and starting with a bang, because Diwali fell the day after we arrived.

The festival of lights reaffirms the triumph of good over evil, light over darkness and is typically marked by firecrackers and lanterns. This year, though, it seemed more muted than usual.

All the markets were busy as ever, the fabric markets in full swing and big throngs outside the fireworks shops.


But when we all trooped over to Marine Parade and Nariman Point, it was all a bit sedate. The crowds were no bigger than for an average weekend night, and relatively few of the residential buildings along one of the world’s most expensive property stretches carried the traditional Diwali lights. There were numbers of people out, of course – this was India, after all. But it was not massive.

Taxi drivers all suggested their business was slow because consumer confidence was subdued. That became a theme over the next three weeks – despite all the razzmatazz, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian economy is slowing, and mumblings are mounting.

But Bombay was its usual wonderful self and our friends discovered the riches of fabric store, Fabindia, that began almost sixty years ago as a means to preserve traditional weaving and has grown into a massive and colourful shopping venue. In fact, at every subsequent destination Fabindia became a target.

Bombay is massive – Maximum City, as Sukhetu Mehta’s excellent book identifies it – but it works well enough. The architecture is remarkable, the energy palpable. And then there is Bollywood, so it was instructive to see our friends come to realise the power of film there and the stature of stars like Amitabh Bachan.

On the plane up I had watched Thugs of Hindostan and enjoyed it thoroughly despite its OTT trajectory, and was surprised that it had “bombed” so spectacularly. A Bollywood friend’s explanation was simple – Indian audiences had already seen Pirates of the Caribbean!

That was just another indicator of how India is becoming mainstreamed into the global economy. Netflix is now doing joint productions and Indian actors are appearing outside India more frequently. Watch this space as the Indian and Chinese film industries both become more globally significant.

And I still think Thugs is a great hoot.

From there it was on to Udaipur that remains one of my favourite places, improved as ever by staying somewhere like the Jagat Niwas Place, overlooking Lake Pichola and the fabled “Lake Palace”.

The power was switched off every time we left the room and the hot water was finite, but the service was fabulous and the views terrific, especially from the roof at sunset with a Kingfisher beer in hand.

Getting to the hotel was an adventure for our friends. A van met us at the airport and navigated the almost forty kilometres of roadwork into Udaipur, then transferred us and luggage into three tuktuks for a circuitous journey via the choked and narrow market lanes. It was all for effect – last time there Sandi and I went in by taxi – but great fun.

That night we all walked around to the other side of the lake and the Ambrai restaurant that sits on the water and serves excellent food. It was so good our friends insisted on returning on a subsequent evening.

Over extended bargaining (that included discussions of politics and life) I made new friends with a jeweller and a Kashmiri fabric trader. Both told me business was slow, and had been even over Diwali. Udaipur was crowded with tourists domestic and foreign, they said, but the Indians were not buying. The jeweller said that his shop was normally crammed over Diwali when he needed extra staff – this time round even his normal staff had little to do.

The next stop was Kochi in Kerala, currently my most favourite place in India.


We included it on the itinerary to show our friends the great differences between north and south India – down here there are as many churches from a variety of denominations as there are temples and mosques. Like the famed Chinese fishing nets, these churches betray the region’s long affiliation with the trading routes pioneered by the Portuguese and followed up by Arabs, Chinese, the British, French and all the rest.

And these days Kerala has an added impulse.

If you’ve ever been to Doha, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and the rest, then there is a fair chance those Indian workers you encountered came from Kerala which has something like a 97% literacy rate. Those educational standards serve the state well. India annually takes in about $US 82 billion from Indians overseas. Almost half of that goes back to Kerala where those remittances represent 35% of the state’s GDP (India’s national average is only about 3%).

That makes for some interesting social patterns. We stayed at the excellent Malabar House in old Kochi where the GM was born in Kerala but brought up in the UAE where he got into the hotel trade then returned to Kerala just a year ago to find the change of pace substantial.

This is part of the new India and its global diaspora that propels Narendra Modi into those Rockstar excursions to performances in places like Madison Square Gardens and the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

My GM friend was finding business slow, too, but not just because of the economy. In his case, that was aggravated by climate change.

Last year the monsoon brought massive floods to the state. About 500 people died, a million were evacuated, and roads, railways, bridges and all the rest took massive damage that still remains. The roads into Kochi from the airport remain under reconstruction.
That monsoon season is normally June to September, but this year was late and extended well into October and November that hit the tourist industry hard as flights were cancelled, tour groups disrupted with participants opting to go elsewhere. So when we emerged from a Kathakali dance demonstration into pouring rain, it was no surprise.


There were still people around, however, all attracting attention from tuktuk drivers who all receive “petrol vouchers” and (if sales eventuate) and commission from the mostly Kashmiri traders who run the tourist-oriented shops.
Those Kashmiris are another signifier of the new India. Some have been in Kerala for fifteen to twenty years, having fled their home state because of the disruption caused by the ongoing India-Pakistan conflict. Now they are incensed by Modi’s abolition of Kashmir’s “special” status guaranteed constitutionally in 1947.

Kashmiri Hindus and Muslims alike are incensed India-wide, even in the south. The move is seen as yet another move in a creeping Hindu nationalist grab from Modi and his federal BJP government in wake of their crushing victory over the Congress party in the most recent elections.
Bombay had been interesting in that respect, too. State elections in Maharashtra delivered no majority party, with the BJP in a standoff over a possible coalition with the Shiv Sena, another Hindu nationalist group. That went unresolved and the state is currently under President’s Rule from New Delhi.
From Kochi we went an hour further south to Alleppy and the houseboats that have evolved from the riceboats that used to ply the Kerala backwaters and their 1,000 kilometres of navigable waterways hemmed between the hills and the Arabian Sea. This area has long been and remains one of the Indian rice bowls, but as newer means of transport evolved the boats that once carried rice now carry tourists who add significantly to those remittances sent home by expat Kerala workers.

We had all decided on having five full days on a boat, and our Indian “advisers” were unanimously agreed that was way too many – do just an overnight, they said, you’ll be bored rigid otherwise.
Wrong. None of us wanted to leave when that final morning arrived. The crew on Spice Routes boat Tamarind was fabulous.


So was the food. Every day was different, the birdlife teemed, there were interesting moments – like stopping into a waterway shop and picking up giant prawns for dinner.


There was always something to do or watch, and we were scared to switch attention off for fear of missing something. It was tranquil, photogenic and incredibly relaxing.

But leave we did, with every intention of returning, and a highlight on that final day was a visit to a genuine handloom fabric store jammed full of locals, we were the only foreigners in sight. There were some traditional handloom weavers on site, displaying incredible skills that are in serious danger of being lost forever as India changes.

This was the India outside the modernised and modernising cities, and a reminder of just how different the place can be – we enjoyed all that as we relaxed for an afternoon at the Purity resort owned by Malabar House on the shores of Lake Vembanand.

Everyone should try that sometime.


Rotorua Noir

Several days on, a buzz remains from having been at Rotorua Noir, New Zealand’s first-ever crime fiction festival directed by Grant Nicol and Craig Sisterson. An immediate sense of community developed, as at similar festivals around the world. Even though crime fiction and thrillers now dominate the publishing market, their writers maintain a “united us” versus the literary fiction “them” who, by and large, consider us lesser beings.

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That debate and, perhaps, the self-doubt never ends, even though crime novels now provide as much if not more “social commentary” than the so-called purer literary forms. Fiona Sussman’s Ngaio Marsh Award-winning The Last Time We Spoke, for example, deals with the effects of home invasion as powerfully as does Ian McEwan’s Saturday. In fact, Sussman may well have more impact, her story being about an ordinary family as opposed to what many critics regarded as McEwan’s impossibly upper middle class/elite “victims”.
Crime fiction now ranges far and wide geographically and covers all contemporary issues including illegal immigration, human trafficking, drugs, corporate corruption and the rest. Some even suggest that all literature is crime fiction, in that a “crime” of some kind invariably provides the “inciting incident”.
Then, crime fiction is as much about character formation and development as any other literary form – think how Michael Connolly’s Harry Bosch having been a Vietnam tunnel rat influences his cop career and behaviour. Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope, similarly, has a background story that shapes her police career. Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, on the other hand, is the average everyday cop who gets on with his life, grumbling at the multiplying tourists who ravage his beloved Venice. In New Zealand, Paul Thomas’ Maori cop, Ihaka, struggles as much with his family’s social and political views as with Auckland crims.

Paul Thomas Ihaka
I thought of Ihaka a lot in Rotorua where the role of Maori in New Zealand society is far more evident than in the South Island, as it is generally across the North, the result of a complex post-European 1840 annexation. The “land wars” were in the north, and the full range of the Maori experience occurred there with an impact on language, custom and tradition. More recently, Treaty of Waitangi settlements have had far more impact there (with due deference to Ngai Tahu achievements in the South Island).

This is not the place for a full discussion of the Maori trajectory fully, but it has been chequered. There have been highs: the Maori Battalion performance in numerous wars, and the achievements of people like Sir Peter Buck, Maui Pomare, Sir Apirana Ngata, Kiri Te Kanawa and Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan. But there have been lows: Maori like George Nepia being voluntarily excluded by a pakeha-dominated New Zealand Rugby Union from tours to South Africa; and the social ills portrayed by Alan Duff in Once Were Warriors. And then there are the health, education and welfare statistics that show Maori doing consistently worse than pakeha.

Tangata Whenua
But as demonstrated in the marvellous Tangata Whenua: an Illustrated History by Atholl Anderson, Judith Binney and Aroha Harris, the Maori story lies at the heart of the whole New Zealand one.
For that reason, having Rotorua Noir begin with an official visit to the Ohinemutu Marae was a brilliant stroke. And that was compounded by our good fortune in having leading Maori cultural leader and academic Ngahuia Te Awekotuku as our official leader.


We were welcomed formally onto the Marae by the full force of Maori oratory, a reminder that this oral tradition reaches back to at least the thirteenth century. It was gently pointed out that, as writers, our spokespeople kept referring to their notes!
Ihaka would have loved it.
Over my days in Rotorua I returned to Ohinemutu, its wonderful village situated on Lake Rotorua and surrounded by thermal activity, because it signifies the complexity of the Maori journey since annexation. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku referred in her talks to Maori difficulties with “settlers”, and those difficulties are long standing. Yet Ohinemutu remains staunchly Anglican with a marvellous church whose interior is dominated by Maori carvings and motifs mixed with Christian themes.

And close to the marae entrance stands a bust of Queen Victoria perched on a magnificent Maori-carved plinth. The bust was donated to Te Arawa in 1870 by the visiting Duke of Edinburgh. A few days before us, Ohinemutu was again visited by royalty, Harry and Meghan. Our hosts told lovely stories about interlopers trying to get in on the photographs.
Most moving for me, though, in the late evening light, was walking through the graveyard dedicated to those warriors who had served, then returned to normal lives. There are Maori in military graveyards across the world, and their service is being recognised increasingly, yet this is one of the most telling reminders of how much Maori have given to New Zealand and how relatively little they have had in return until recently.

Ihaka might have been moved, too.

Protagonists like him worldwide, then, have back stories along with their strengths, flaws, failings, quirks, absurdities and ordinariness.
All that and more was present in Rotorua where well-known, successful writers mixed readily with lesser lights, about-to-be and hope-to-be writers, and readers. The community just got together to encourage each other. Internationally acclaimed writers Michael Robotham, Alex Gray, Lilja Siguroardottir and Kati Hiekkapelto set an openness and approachability that helped a set of Kiwi writers get to know each other, having met previously only in the social media world – there was a lot of “really good to meet you here instead of on Facebook”.
Sessions covered the full range from discussions of specific books through the tribulations of debut authors to film scripting, setting, character development, research and, inevitably, the mechanics of publishing.
By chance, that last topic has shot to prominence globally in the last few days with Ian Parker’s New Yorker expose of Dan Mallory aka A J Finn, writer of the bestselling The Woman in the Window.
If you haven’t yet read about or caught up on this, you must!

It is a thriller in itself. Parker reveals Mallory as a serial liar who matches or exceeds Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. Fittingly, Mallory wrote academic pieces on Ripley, then later lied about having not one but two PhDs. He also claimed to have lost his parents and a brother to cancer when they are very much alive, and to having had serious cancer himself when that is apparently not the case. Parker suggests Mallory falsified his credentials to gain senior positions in publishing. In a wonderful twist, Mallory became the editor for Sophie Hannah who was rewriting Agatha Christie. She grew suspicious, hired a private detective to dig into his story, then made the results a plot line in one of her own novels. You cannot make this stuff up, as they say.
Necessarily, a torrent of commentary has ensued, swinging largely around the idea that although women dominate the publishing workforce, charlatan males like Mallory reach the top more readily. It might well be more about why the industry did not deal with him long ago. One telling story is that half way through the bidding war for the book, A J Finn’s real identity was revealed. Almost all bidders immediately withdrew with his own house left to buy the rights. He was a well-known problem but allowed to continue despite spectacular behaviours, like leaving urine-filled paper cups near out-of-favour colleagues’ desks

It should be noted Mallory has denied most if not all these behaviours, and issued a statement saying that he has mental health issues.
Even more seriously from a writer’s viewpoint, there are now close investigations of Mallory’s book itself, with suggestions it might not actually be that original. Some critics have pointed to it having a strong similarity to the 1995 film, Copycat, and others are likening it to other much lesser known books.
Leaving aside the obvious point that “originality” is moot – as discussed by Plato and Aristotle right through to Joseph Campbell’s work on myth and Christopher Booker’s more recent idea of seven basic plots – this may be the result of publishers looking for “more of the same”. Because Pamela Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl worked so well, then publishing houses search desperately for equivalents and along comes The Woman in the Window.
Just one of the many strands here includes the idea that academia now routinely uses anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin. Does the publishing industry have such a weapon, and is it used even on the hottest property, or does the lure of the market dictate all actions?
One further irony is that for authors, getting reviews on Amazon is now so much more difficult. In wake of revelations about some authors reviewing themselves and deriding others, Amazon turned the screws. Now, in some cases at least, it seems that the screws should be on the book rather than its reviewers.

Ideally, this scandale would have coincided with Rotorua Noir. In our company, for example, was the wonderful Joanne Drayton whose The Search for Anne Perry identified that writer as having originally been Juliet Hume. Along with Pauline Parker, Hume was convicted of having killed Parker’s mother in Christchurch in the early 1950s, but then relocated to America to successfully remake her life. Maybe Jo should write the Mallory biography.
But the Mallory event coming in the wake of Rotorua Noir has been stimulating enough and sharpens the reading. I am currently enjoying The Silent Death by Volker Kutscher of Babylon Berlin fame. It is good, but reminds me just how much we lost with the untimely death of Philip Kerr whose Bernie Gunther novels remain a marker of great crime writing.
Then, I am binge watching Season 2 of Fauda, an Israeli-made series featuring an undercover special forces unit and its campaign against Hamas. It is well written, underscoring the complex turns taken by Israeli and Palestinian interests and the surprisingly intertwined interests of all the rival factions. That level of complexity complicates personal as well as professional lives in a region where life is lived at maximum adrenalin. And an added bonus is the footage that shows the nature of living in crowded places like Ramallah and Nablus.

When I was working in Jordan, a Palestinian colleague asked how long it would take me to fly home to Melbourne in Australia. I said about 17 hours.
“That is about the time it will take me to get home from Amman to Nablus,” he replied, “because of the checkpoints.”
The distance between Amman and Nablus is 70 kilometres.
Fauda captures that intensity, even if there is the inevitable quibbling about its politics.

In its own way, Rotorua Noir, too, caught an intensity – of Kiwi crime writing that is now much encouraged as a result, and looking forward to the next festival.

More Of The Same?

It has not been dull since the last post.

Even this early in the new year we have Theresa May’s massive mauling over Brexit in the British parliament; America’s longest-ever government shutdown brought on by Trump’s Wall; Mike Pence’s “ISIS is defeated” moment made a mockery of by the killings in Nairobi; France recently stand-stilled by the most ingenious ever use of hi-vis jackets; and the Australian government’s belated turn to the Pacific blighted by a ham-fisted attempt to have one of its homegrown terrorists become

Last year ended more serenely for us with two cruises on which I was a guest speaker. The first, on Seabourn’s Encore, began in Dubai (where a chance discovery means that Sandi now wants to go there regularly for hair appointments) and finished in Singapore via ports in the Arabian Gulf, India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

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India was its marvellous usual self with all the haggling, revelations, discoveries and fun. In Mumbai (that I still call Bombay) it was great to revisit all the old architecture, quirky shops, and all the cricket matches going on around the city.2018 best-48

Further south, Kochi remains one of the nicest places to visit in the country with the Chinese fishing nets a timely reminder that the India-China relationship, now so topical, has been going on for centuries. Zheng He, the great Chinese navigator, died off the Kerala coast almost six hundred years ago, something my cruise audiences always find astonishing. Globalisation has been going on for a long time.2018 best-53

My new Le Fanu novel, A Greater God, appeared as we left the ship in Singapore, since then sparking the usual business of watching reviews which, thankfully, have mostly been good.

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The complex publishing world is now beset perennially with issues prompted by reviews and the associated promotions that seek recognition among a welter of new contenders. Amazon now makes it difficult for reviews to be posted, in the wake of several so-called “sock puppet” incidents where authors anonymously either puff their own books or/and deride others in the genre. Now there are questions on blogsites about whether or not negative reviews should be allowed. It is obviously desirable to strike a balance between praise and suggestion, but it must be achieved if the review is to have serious purpose and impact. Real barbs, though, are rare in this new Age of Sensitivities.

One recent one, though, came from the sadly missed A. A. Gill who won a Hatchet Job of the Year Award for this comment on Morrissey’s Autobiography:

He has made up for being alive by having a photograph

of himself pretending to be dead on the cover.

Such cutting remarks were common in an earlier age, with the American Dorothy Parker to the fore. Having read A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, she informed her readers:

And it is that word ‘hummy’, my darlings, that was the first place

in The House at Pooh Corner at which Tonstant Weader fwowed up.

The Pooh books remain among my favourites, Parker notwithstanding, not least because the cricket-loving Milne made sure that Douglas Jardine, the English cricketer Australians love to hate, received two copies of each new one signed by himself and the wonderful illustrator, Ernest Shepard, whose archives are now at the University of Surrey.

Gore Vidal was another acerbic reviewer, this among his more noted observations:

What other culture could have produced someone like

Hemingway and not seen the joke?

Those days are passed, mostly, but there are times when it would be better they had not – like whenever another Shades of Gray variation appears. But not for Le Fanu, of course.

The second cruise was very different, from and to Sydney through the Coral Sea to Alotau in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and onto some of the nearby islands, most notably the Trobriands. Those last were a highlight for me, for two reasons.

Kiriwina was where Bronislaw Malinowski found himself stranded during World War One and produced Argonauts of the Western Pacific, one of the first great works of ethnography and social anthropology.malinowski_trobriand_isles_1918

And the second reason was related, because this was where the Trobrianders famously adapted cricket, brought in by the missionaries, to more resemble their own cultural practices. I have now seen that game on the ground, if only in demonstration form.2018 best-65

As ever in these travels, there were reminders about how the natural world is changing. On the Conflict Islands, owned by an Australian conservationist, we helped release a young Hawksbill turtle hatchling. In normal circumstances, if it was a male it would never return to land, even though these turtles can live up to one hundred and fifty years. If it was a female, she would return to the release point in thirty years to lay eggs. But, we were told, it is entirely possible these turtles might well be extinct in thirty years.2018 best-64

Given that, scathing literary reviews seem very much a First World Problem, and a point at which to think about some of my own readings. I will admit to a few books started and not finished, but not name them because choice and taste are so selective. A couple were just too dark and graphic for me, another couple too meandering, and a couple simply boring, for me.

You could never accuse Ian Rankin of those crimes, however, and In A House of Lies ranks high among my 2018 favourites. We all know the work that goes in, but he writes oh so easily, on point and every word telling. The characters develop more, with Rebus suffering from emphysema, and the dialogue is natural with a compelling storyline. This man deserves all the praise he gets, and a house of lies

Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk is totally different, but something I enjoyed reading.

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The book involves a promotional tour of America by a group of soldiers come to prominence for an action in Iraq. Their propaganda tour sees them accompanied by an agent trying to raise funds for a film, and the book covers a Thanksgiving Day visit at the Dallas Cowboys stadium where Billy Lynn encounters a cheerleader. These soldiers have to return to the field, however, and Ben Fountain has his characters experience the emotional doubts covered in David Finkel’s marvellous two non-fiction works, The Good Soldiers and Thank You For Your Service. Ang Lee made a film of Billy Lynn that failed at the box office.

Totally different again was Annie Haynes’ The Man With the Dark Beard and you will know why I read it when I tell you that the protagonist is Inspector William Stoddart.the-man-with-the-dark-beard

Annie Haynes herself remains a mystery but is now recognised among the best of the Golden Age of crime fiction alongside Christie, Allingham, Sayers and Marsh. She was sponsored by an upper-class friend and produced a slew of novels in the 1920s before her death from rheumatoid arthritis. The book is classically focused on “the mystery” (a murder, of course) and the characters, with the possible exception of the villain, do not develop all that much. There are moments where the storyline is bolstered by fortuitous information gained effectively “off camera”, and that would not do these days. But Haynes could write. One critic has Inspector Stoddart as a likeable figure and I do not get that yet, but perhaps the other three Stoddart mysteries I have yet to read will help.

One of my other best reads for last year was Lou Berney’s Long And Faraway Gone which is terrific. His November Road then appeared to wide acclaim and it is good, very good, but for me does not match the earlier one.november road

The writing is marvellous, the characters memorable, and the story line strong. In wake of the Kennedy assassination, a womanising mobster goes on the run having stumbled into the connections that made the hit and want him dead, too. On the road, he encounters a woman and her two young kids heading to California and away from an alcoholic husband/father. The mobster seizes an opportunity to become a family man to confuse his pursuers. Interplay between him and the woman is believable, and he becomes more of a human. The resolution lost me, but is still a very good book.

And for something completely different, Sandrone Dazieri’s Kill The Angel. sandrone dazieri

In translation from the Italian, it follows Kill The Father but works as a standalone. A train arrives into Rome with one of its upscale carriages full of poisoned passengers. Terrorism is the first thought but the case goes to Colomba Caselli, a trouble cop who immediately calls in her even more troubled mate, Dante Torre. They eventually uncover a massive conspiracy and mass murder trail involving a ghost like woman come from the old Soviet regime. Much of this is fantastical, semi-believable and, in parts, Tarantino-like in its casualised mayhem and violence. But it is a good read.

So that has brought me into the new year with more books to read, some crime shows to watch, with several writing projects and other fun to be fitted in.

I’ll keep you posted.

Booking In

This has been one of those years during which time has disappeared, almost literally. It seems inconceivable that the last blog post was so long ago (please check: I cannot bear to date it). A combination of professional tasks have required a long presence in Sydney and upset a few timetables, but the real problem is that the world has gone completely mad.

Australia changed prime ministers.

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Some might rightly say, “Nothing new there, then!” and might very well be correct. When the egregious Peter Dutton mounted his open attack on the hapless Malcolm Turnbull (“Malcolm in the Muddle” as one wag retitled that old television show), our political cynic daughter Laura had another view. As Scott Morrison emerged from the rubble as the new boss, her view was that someone had been watching way too much television and channelling Frank Underwood in the Spacey version of House of Cards. Although Melania is no Claire, perhaps.

The American real life version of that show has continued apace, of course, and combining the “Me Too” dimension via the appalling Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court process. Kavanaugh’s sponsor has wreaked change on us all. At least some of my complications this year emanate from Trump’s confrontation with China that has bashed share markets everywhere including Asia. That all has an indirect as well as direct impact on the global higher education system. For example, the multi-leader Australian government’s siding with Trump in belting China has some Australian university bosses worried that the rivers of funds from Chinese international students might get dammed by the Beijing bosses. So the starting figures for those students next February in Australia will be watched closely.

Across in the UK Theresa May’s dance moves have attracted as much derision as her orchestral manoeuvres in the dark with the EU as a “hard BREXIT” looms. Hundreds of thousands of people have just turned out in London in support of a new people’s vote, while the Tories flirt with their change of leadership that might involve Jacob Rees Mogg or Boris Johnson, both of whom best belong in a political satire show rather than in real life.

The Saudis have apparently killed one of their own in the Istanbul consulate; the war in Yemen rages; Syria now contemplates massive reconstruction after years of conflict; Chinese financial power around the world raises the prospect of a new order of power, especially but not exclusively in Africa; Italy totters on the edge of another financial collapse; and even New Zealand seems to have succumbed.

Since her election a year ago the world has been agog at Jacinda Adern, witness her starring role at the UN and, more importantly, on the Stephen Colbert Show.   At home things have not been quite so rosy and, until the past few days, a one-term Adern gig seemed likely. Then the opposition National Party blew itself up. A renegade national MP went public against his leader, releasing privately recorded conversations that upset a lot of other members. At the heart of this was the alleged manipulation of party political donations from a Chinese businessman. Then the renegade was himself outed as a “Me Too” offender, claiming to have had an affair with the party’s deputy leader, before admitting himself for mental health assistance. It has been one of the most sensational events in NZ politics for a while, and made Adern look like a steadying force, especially as she seems also to have tamed the ever-present kingmaker, Winston Peters.

Even that has not spoiled the pleasure of a brief return to Queenstown where spring has finally arrived and good bike rising weather along with that.

And another way of escaping all that madness has been to catch up on some reading.

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When the American writer Denis Johnson died last year, several writers whom I really respect noted how much they liked his work. Having never read his work I went off finally to devour The Laughing Monsters. It is extraordinary and almost impossible to describe, but think of a cross between Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or Brando’s Colonel Kurtz-version of that in Apocalypse Now) and Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop. A couple of double/agents with a tortuous history meet up on a private wealth-gathering expedition in Africa, one of them accompanied by his about-to-be-wife who is the daughter of an intelligence boss. While the outcome is inconclusive, the story telling and use of language is in parts mesmerising and always compelling. If you want to escape the normal reading rut, this is a great candidate.

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I was less impressed by Kate Atkinson’s new book, Transcription, although many reviewers like it. She has been one of my favourite writers since I read Case Histories years ago. This new book is based around the imagined life of an ingénue woman recruited into British spy services during World War Two. Her role is to listen to then type out the printed version of secretly recorded conversations among low level Nazi sympathisers. It is a brilliant idea, Atkinson’s writing is as sharp as ever, and parts of it are terrific with the characters memorable. For me it limped along a bit, but maybe I just loved Case Histories too much – if you haven’t read that then please do, some of the most marvellous crime writing.

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In a similar setting, Cathi Unsworth’s That Old Black Magic is altogether different and more captivating, even if the conclusion is a bit too cerebral for me. This, too, focuses on people in Britain who did not support the war effort and on attempts to bring them to book, but locates many of these people in the world of the occult and the supernatural. Central to unravelling this is an undercover cop who himself has a occult connection as well as a flair for the show business life and suggestions of a few other different lifestyle inclinations. I really liked Unsworth’s capture of the period and this particular subculture, the characters are memorable and the plot lines clever. Well worth trying.

Joseph Kanon’s Istanbul Passage is set in that city’s immediate-postwar life with spies and counter-spies on every corner, and an American businessman recruited into an operation that is well beyond his understanding.  This is one of the best things I have read for a while, as is Alan Judd’s Uncommon Enemy that covers a similar set of themes in postwar Britain. Both writers develop character extremely well, their story and plot lines are excellent, and the overall atmospherics convincing.

Donna Leon has been an exemplar of crime and place, and I have written elsewhere how I once spied her in a waterside restaurant in Venice and how her books were my guide to that city on my first visit. There are now well over twenty Guido Brunetti mysteries and perhaps I have now read too much other good stuff but The Temptation of Forgiveness did not provide the satisfaction of the earlier works. Brunetti now rails routinely against the depredations of tourism and tourists who make life miserable for the few remaining Venetians, and the crimes he investigates have some neat twists. But he remains essentially ageless, not much changes. His boss is as unfathomable as ever; the boss’s ever-ahead-of-the-game expert hacker is as strong as ever; his colleagues are as much as they ever were, just like him and his family. The city changes, but not them. These days, crime fiction is very often about personal change – think Wallander and say no more. I don’t get this from Guido now, and sadly so, because he has been a central part of my crime life.

Early next year I will be a part of Rotorua Noir, , so it is fitting that I round out my recent reading with a couple of authors who will star there.

Sussman the-last-time-we-spoke

Fiona Sussman won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Award with The Last Time We Spoke, the story of a violent home invasion in rural New Zealand, and the consequences of that for all  involved as victims or perpetrators. Set firmly in the “domestic noir” mode, now so strong in the UK and elsewhere, it is harrowing in parts, but realistic in capturing the New Zealand underbelly, as it were. And in doing it explores dimensions of the contemporary Maori and Pasifika experience, laid bare earlier in Alan Duff’s confronting Once Were Warriors. Sometimes overwhelming, it remains impressive because Fiona Sussman is a seriously good writer.

Carter 9781925164534_RGB

So, too, is Alan Carter who recently won the 2018 Ngaio Marsh, for the cleverly titled Marlborough Man, and so added to his Ned Kelly Award for best debut of a few years ago. Here, an English undercover cop fleeing a criminal boss intent on revenge is relocated to rural New Zealand, specifically the Marlborough Sounds and Nelson, best known these days for the astonishing amount of sauvignon blanc it produces. This has serious characters and a strong story arc but with banter and light relief, wordplay and interplay between characters, and a back story of domestic pressure in the cop’s family life. It is a good read.

Meanwhile in other news. My Crusaders (you know I hate the Orientalist name) won the Super Rugby series yet again; and the All Blacks the Rugby Championship despite losing at home to South Africa – that was a timely reminder for the ABs heading into next year’s World Cup. The International Cricket Council had Dubai-based Pakistan flogging Australia in 40C+ heat, while India at home has been flaying the West Indies who are no longer the force they were when I played in Barbados long ago. And the Dodgers are in the World Series for the second year in a row, and we fans hope for a better display than against the Astros last time. But they are up against a massively talented Boston so who knows.

This next bit will have come to the attention of those who followed the link to Rotorua Noir.

AGG cover KDP 14 Sep.indd

Le Fanu is back.

In my last couple of blogs I mentioned that Le Fanu 4 was under way. Well, now, amidst all the chaos recounted earlier here, he is ready to reappear in A Greater God.

Le Fanu returns to Madras from the adventures of A Straits Settlement, intent on getting back to Penang as fast as possible, attracted by Jenlin Koh and a new post. But things get complicated, naturally. Hindu-Muslim tension is rising in 1920s Madras, affecting the working relationship between Habi and Jackson Caldicott, Le Fanu’s two main police offsiders. Arthur “The Jockey” Jepson is exploiting that in a campaign for ever higher office as Le Fanu’s major government supporters prepare to leave the Presidency. Le Fanu’s personal life becomes complicated, again, as the professional problems mount and he comes under severe pressure to resolve his future.

Auckland’s wonderful Adrienne Charlton has been a sensational editor on this one, and from her I have learned an enormous amount.    It is a running joke that she insists I do not use enough semi-colons and I insist she wants too many hyphens. But the final quality of the book owes much to her, as does its very presence on several global platforms awaiting a late-November release. If you need an editor, then I recommend her most highly.

And Adrienne thinks A Greater God has a stronger complexity than its predecessors, and a bit more of a “slow burn”. Maybe I was thinking about Guido.

I do hope you will all like it when it comes out, and if you do then needless to say I would love for you to post reviews on Amazon and anywhere else you can find.

Many thanks.

Crime, Place, Character

As you know, I’m intrigued by the connections between crime fiction, place and people (or characters, to be more specific). There is now a broad and extending idea that crime fiction is among the largest selling genre forms for a reason – it provides insights into the general human condition wherever that is found. And that adds to the other modern mantra on the form, that it is now more about the people than the puzzle. To understand that, just juxtapose Agatha Christie with Denise Mina or Megan Abbott and you’ll spot the difference.

Megan Abbott

Of course, there are always exceptions. Among my favourite crime writers is Michael Innes, the pen name for J.I.M. Stewart, a Scot who was Professor of English at Adelaide from 1936 to 1946, during which time he began the Sir John Appleby series. Appleby himself developed considerably over the fifty years that Stewart wrote the books, and so did the other characters and crises. That befitted such an acute observer as Stewart whose A Staircase In Surrey quintet (written in the 1970s) remains one of the great campus novel series. But as always, that exception goes to prove the general rule.

J.I.M. Stewart

What may also be taken from Stewart/Innes is the idea of place and milieu. For him it was the cloistered university and the largely decent upper class set, a sort of early version of Midsomer Murders. Because of Christie and the rest, that social strata was for a long time the go-to site for the crime novel, and has been extended dramatically only in relatively recent times. Among the many reasons the rise of Tartan Noir has been so important is precisely its break from that tradition, starting with Willie McIlvanney’s works.

Across the Atlantic, it was very different from an earlier point, another indicator of the intricate relationship between the specific crime fiction form and the culture that produces it. Dashiell Hammett had introduced his hard boiled Sam Spade by the early 1930s, a clear reflection of his own life as a Pinkerton that helped him pioneer the life on the street genre. There is a clear line from there to the wonderful work of Michael Connolly whose Bosch is in so many ways Spade’s direct descendant.

I have been thinking about all this again of late having time in Sydney, Perth and Hong Kong as well as New Zealand. That has been aggravated by reading and viewing choices that always raise the question about what works and why. And for me that always involves place and culture, but it also involves believability.

Why is it, for example, that these days anything set in Scandinavia is automatically regarded as a compulsory read or view? Sweden has just 9.9 million people, Denmark 5.7 million, Finland 5.5 million, Norway 5.3 million and, spectacularly, Iceland only 337,000 inhabitants. That last is spectacular because Iceland Noir is all the rage. The number of published writers per 100 people there must be very high. And the impact of the crime writers far outweighs these figures: think Stig Larsson, Jo Nesbo, Yrsa Siguroardottir and all the rest.

By comparison, New Zealand also has many writers among the 4.8 million inhabitants that put it on a rough par with the Scandinavian countries. Over sixty entries turned up for the current Ngaio Marsh Award round. Yet with all due deference to Paul Cleave, no Kiwi comes close to having the impact of any Scandinavian writer. Given similar landscapes and all that, why should that be so?

Paul Cleave

One funny clue might help start the analysis. At Crimefest a few years ago the inimitable Simon Brett delivered an after dinner speech that was a spoof on a Scandi krimi. “He brooded. He brooded some more. He brooded for a long time.” It was an affectionate homage to Henning Mankell and Wallander, but also food for thought. Put simply, perhaps simplistically, Scandinavian writers find a surprisingly large number of intense characters in among those small population numbers.

This comes out somewhat in the Jo Nesbo-inspired television series Occupied where Norway is taken over by Russia, sparking all the usual questions about collaboration or resistance, challenged relationships, intrigue and double dealing. And in this case, the role of the European Union provides a marvellous additional source for both setting and story.


It would be difficult to do that in a story that had New Zealand occupied by Australia. Besides, New Zealanders will tell you they don’t “brood”.

The Occupied storyline is marvellously intricate and the second season probably as good as the first, although the heroic Prime Minister turned resistance leader has become somewhat irritating both personally and professionally.

I am watching that show having binged Harlan Coben’s Safe season that somehow did not impress. The combinations provide a clue. This joint English-French production for Netflix is set in an English gated community and masterminded by Coben, the quintessential American writer. A widowed surgeon still bothered by his behaviour during his wife’s last days now struggles to deal with his young daughters and is in a clandestine relationship with a neighbour who just happens to be the local detective sergeant. One of his daughters disappears after her boyfriend turns up dead in a swimming pool at an unauthorised teenage party that gets out of control. The detective sergeant handles the case but the surgeon runs his own alternate investigation, and both turn up a myriad of back stories that may or may not explain the events. Without giving anything away, the final plot turn challenges believability.


That last point is why Safe did not work for me. The gated community does not come across so well in the British setting, and while its inhabitants are admirably modern Brit in the cross-cultural sense, it is not evident how some of them end up living in what is obviously an expensive place. The surgeon, yes, but the loner hoarder who lives next door, hardly. And the tone gets stuck between the serious and the comic, with the actions of the mixed-marriage family on whose property the body turns up becoming pure slapstick.

Safe lacks a coherent cultural core, Occupied carries that strongly. The result is powerful: the Safe storyline is inherently more believable that that in Occupied (party goes wrong versus Russia occupies Norway) yet structure and grounding make it far less believable.

So if the Scandi settings are so believable, both in book and on screen, why is it that places like New Zealand and Australia are a harder sell leaving aside obvious standouts like Jane Harper’s justifiably triumphant The Dry? In part it is a cultural thing: it is far easier to be impressed by somewhere else than by your own settings. Paul Cleave makes Christchurch seem a dark and complicated place, but you’d generally have a hard time convincing other Kiwis that was so. The sadly now late Peter Temple made Melbourne seem internationally nuanced, whereas Peter Corris’ Cliff Hardy books set in Sydney started with Hammett but morphed quickly into an attractively disdainful and diffident riff.

Peter temple

In one sense, like New York, LA, London and Edinburgh (thanks to Rankin) the Scandi sites have become believable as crime sites. So if you write about them you’re off to a fast start with a reader. In recent years those sites have expanded. Think Chan Ho-kei’s Hong Kong; Fred Vargas’ Paris; Ovidia Yu’s Singapore; Ankush Saikia’s Delhi; Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles and Seicho Matsumoto’s Tokyo.


It would be a far tougher sell to start with, say, my home town of Ashburton even though in recent years it has had an unsolved murder and an office shooting carried out by a disgruntled client. While most of us would think that small place settings eliminate complexity (because everyone knows everyone else), the Scandinavians have made that work, largely by way of the characters themselves.

That comes through in another Norwegian show, Borderliner. A big town detective goes on forced leave having accused a senior officer of corruption. Back in the small town where his brother is also a cop and his father the retired sheriff, the visiting detective is pressed back into service by another officer come from the outside to investigate an apparent suicide. The show floats constantly on the margins of the incredible, but survives by stressing the differences in people and their motivations. That could work with Ashburton.


As I contemplate a substantive edit on the new Le Fanu, then, I think a lot about this dimension. The setting in 1920s colonial Madras (then one of the British Empire’s largest cities) is a good start for most readers, but the characters still need to ring real in that setting and in their behaviours. Therein lies one of the essential writing challenges.


Antipodean Crossings, Global Readings

For the past several months Sandi and I have been Antipodean hopping, between Queenstown, Sydney and Western Australia so that somehow 2018 has arrived and already started to disappear.

Most recently we were in Perth to see long time friend Kim Beazley installed as Governor of Western Australia.


There is a history there. Kim was among the first people I met when I arrived in Australia way back then and Susie Annus, his wife, went to school in Perth with Sandi. It is wonderful to be able to celebrate the ongoing successes of such lifelong friends, and to renew a few acquaintances along the way.

Along with that I was able to escape to my sister-in-law’s vineyard in the southwest of Western Australia and finish the main draft of the new novel. As usual some of it is still very rough, but I am of the school that finds it easy to chop and refine once I have words, any words on a page. Well, there are more than 90,000 of them on several pages now so plenty to work with, a major relief.

But I have fitted in some reading and, regrettably, one of the best reads had a really sad touch to it.

Philip Kerr

Recently we lost Philip Kerr, that marvellous creator of the Bernie Gunther series that began a long time back with his Berlin Noir trilogy, took a several years break then returned with a lot more. His latest, Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts, appeared just days after his death and I will set aside a quiet time to take that in.

Prussian Blue has all the hallmarks of this wonderful series: clever and intricate plot, memorable characters, sparkling dialogue, persistent noir humour that is an homage to Dashiell Hammet, impeccable research and historical context, and just magic writing. Not only was he commercially successful, he was a writer’s writer in that there was always something to learn from him.

babylon berlin

While watching the current Netflix sensation, Babylon Berlin, based on Volker Kutscher’s novels, I was reminded constantly of Philip Kerr. The series is set in Berlin in 1929 as fascists, communists, reactionaries and decadents all respond to the rise of Hitler amidst Berthold Brecht and all the rest. Protagonist Gereon Rath bears all the Bernie hallmarks, and much of the story and its setting simply reinforce just how well Philip Kerr got it.

He was no one-dimensional  author, however.  He was prolific across children’s books, the Scott Manson series and several standalones.  Before Prussian Blue I had read Research in which the wife of a major pulp fiction writer is found dead, and the writer’s old ghost team comes back into the picture. It is brilliant, well worth a read for its plot twists, character development, scene setting and, as always, dialogue and general prose.

What a loss this has been, but Bernie remains as one of the best ever creations of crime fiction.

Luckily, though, there are some brilliant new writers coming along and one of them is Australia’s Emma Viskic whose Resurrection Bay won several major awards including a Ned Kelly.


That has now been joined by And Fire Came Down, the second Caleb Zelic adventure. Cal is deaf and survives as an investigator through highly developed lip reading skills, tenacity, and the odd assistant along the way. At the heart of this is signing, and in the first book there is a marvellous unfolding of an introduction to him, his tics and his skills.

Emma Viskic really can write and one of her great skills, rather like that of  the late, lamented Peter Temple, is the ability to make commonplace sites well known to Victorians immediately credible as threatening, brooding venues for violence and criminality. She puts her characters through the wringer and makes it all believable.

Ace Atkins

And then there is Quinn Colson, the creation of Ace Atkins. Quinn is a Mississippi Sheriff, a local boy and returned Ranger who served in Afghanistan.  He has his problems, of course, but he knows the local landscape and all its cultural contours. The Fallen is number 7 in the series and features a prolific gang of bank robbers who turn out to be ex-Marines who also served and now crave the adrenalin raised in battle as much as they do the money. A marvellously Machiavellian madam cons one of them into hitting a local drug mob and it all goes wrong, bringing down the ire of the Missisippi Mafia who in turn set out after Colson.

This is high action stuff arced by wonderful dialogue that captures “The South”, some just glorious characters who develop beautifully, excellent scene setting, and a lot of contemporary references – the bank robbers wear Donald Trump masks.

It probably says way too much about me, but I enjoyed this more than I did Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird that recently won the Edgar Award in America for best novel, a book set also in the south.

Eva Dolan’s This Is How It Ends is a lot of people’s favourite book of the year so far and it is good.

Eva Dolan

There is a lot of crime fiction about, as we know, and it takes a lot to stand out but here the plot line and the character development is way beyond and above the average. Without giving away too much, the main character begins as a PhD researcher into the British women’s activist movement, but as the book evolves she morphs into something very different. I was a little disappointed in the ending but, nevertheless, this is a stellar book.

Brush with fame: back in 2014 my A Madras Miasma was rated among the best ten debut books of that year by one of the UK’s best crime fiction website. I was at No 8. The No.10 slot was held by Clare Donoghue who has gone on to great things while at 9, Sarah Hilary has done even better, winning the Theakston. Way up at No 2 was Eva Dolan who, as you can see, is still a star. 

Nobody's Fool

And right now I am way into and just loving Nobody’s Fool by one of my favourite writers in any genre, Richard Russo whose The Straight Man remains among the very best campus novels ever written: “Who else but an English professor would threaten to kill a duck a day and hold up a goose as an example?”.

In this one he unlayers life in a small upstate New York rustbelt town and , much like the now pariahed Garrison Keilor, makes a marvellous symphony out of the simplest tune. Sully is a sixty year old wreck who lodges with a widow and has been cuckolding a largely unsuspecting husband for twenty years, and who survives day to day by wisecracking his way through the crisis that is his life.

Russo is a master storyteller whose ear for the local argot matches Ace Atkins’ for the south and whose characters all have the authenticity of Bernie Gunther. The plot lines and story trajectory are magical, and he is a joy to read.

There will be a bit more reading over the coming days before a commercial commitment in Hong Kong after which, hopefully, I will be back in Queenstown to ride the mountain bike during the crisp mornings by the lake before going back to edit Le Fanu and, again hopefully, having learned something from all these great talents of the craft.

Tasman iPhone 011

Remembering John Clarke

The recent and hugely successful appearance of Tinkering: the Complete Book of John Clarke is a wonderful if simultaneously sad reminder of just how much we lost last year when the great man passed away while walking in Victoria’s Grampians.

Clarke Tinkering

I was a foot soldier in a particular legion: those who encountered John occasionally but maintained a strong email connection that is now a treasured archive because of gems like these:

“I didn’t see much of ‘Top of the Lake’ but the bits I saw looked like ‘Truth’ shot with very expensive equipment.”

“Good evening and thanks. It’s like NZ in the 60s when a wealthy farmer who’d had quite an interesting war would appear on TV in a tweed jacket, viyella shirt and knitted tie, explaining that if the Japanese wanted more salt in their butter then they were welcome to bugger off and buy it from someone else. Entry level hubris and a lovely tribute to Lewis Carroll.”

“Quade [Cooper] looks to me like one of those footballers who is twinkletoes for about a season and a half and then drifts out of form, imagines himself still a contender and ends up running a pub somewhere, quickly running to fat and being picked up for driving an unregistered vehicle.”

“Neill, S[am]. was in Melbourne a few years ago for some sort of Central Otago pinots festival and I was his date. There were many many pinots; all were good and some of them seemed to come up behind us. I’m recovering nicely and expect to be back on the solids shortly. Macleod, E[uan]. is a fine painter and may even know something about these pinots.”

Clarkeian observations on life, politics, sport, film, the media, art, literature and so much else were always insightful, shrewd and invariably funny, as Tinkering reflects.

In the uproarious “Saint Paul’s Letter to the Electorates”, for example, Clarke casts a Biblical account of Australia’s political trajectory from Kevin Rudd’s arrival to Julia Gillard seeing off Tony Abbott with the assistance of Bob Brown who was also Green. JC’s observations en passant are comic genius: “a man called Peter” was, of course, Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil and Minister for Pink Batts, “a maker of music and a dancer, although he was rather jerky in this latter discipline and it maketh complete sense that he got out of that line of work”. When Peter “spake” as a politician, “people lost all hope. And their eyes glazeth over, and their heads droopeth and in some cases they slippeth into repose.”

Kevin, meanwhile, reassured the hordes that “thou art blessed, for I am thy leader” to which said hordes responded, “bloweth thee not thine own trumpet too loudly, for the walls that come tumbling down might be thine own.” Inevitably, then, Kevin “looseth the plot’ to be lined up by Arbib and Shorten (remember him?) who went to Julia saying “it’s your job to tell Kevin. We’ll hold your coat. And it was on for young and old”. To Josephine Public, they were all wankers. For Clarke, “spillers of seed”.

The appearance of the first in what threatens to be a series of Rudd’s own gospels at the same time as the infinitely more succinct Tinkerings merely underlines how sharp, observant and wry John Clarke was on politics as on all else. Any reasonable and many unreasonable readers will clock how absurd this all was, how frighteningly real.

Then the very next piece after that political spray features Terry Lineen, remembered only by avid New Zealand rugby fans of a particular age, with shards that skewer the modern game specifically and modern sport altogether:

In those days there were four tests a year rather than one a week and they

actually mattered. Nobody sang the national anthem and if a player scored

a try he returned to his position in solitude and waited until the fuss died down

Nobody got paid. The players all had other jobs.

Reading this just as Lima Sopoaga announced he was leaving New Zealand All Black rugby for the English club scene at a massive salary was further reminder of just how good a long sweep analyst John was – he might well have belonged among the Annales school of French historians who espoused the longue duree.

John doubtless preferred the earlier era in sport, as reflected here in his tributes to Peter Thomson, Marjorie Jackson Nelson and Murray Rose. Concomitantly, he preferred the earlier commentary styles to those that now more resemble a national cheer squad than a set of sober analysts. Recently I sat next to a well known cricket “journalist” who constantly referenced matches “we” (“Astraya”) were playing in India, the Sahara, Uzbekistan or somewhere in the outer reaches of the Maldives. Clarke would have loved the geography way more than the craven partisanship.

And then comes the reverential essay on Seamus Heaney that underlines both John Clarke’s knowledge and his supreme ability with words:

[Heaney] still holds a poetry book the way a farmer holds an almanac of

cattle prices and crop yields. He is practical, friendly and weather-wise

and when amused, as he often is, his eyes close with pleasure. The Heaney

nucleus also features an instinct for the resolving chord in things;

for finding the balance in words and ideas.

There is a continuity here. Up in Wellington away back then John Clarke, a year or two behind me in New Zealand’s “new to the university” race, was already looking to probe the national Kiwi psyche. As this book shows, his journey to that point was remarkable enough with parents whose cultural interests put a range of astonishing people into their son’s world: James K. Baxter, the New Zealand poet and cultist; W.H. Auden’s teacher; novelist Anthony Burgess; actress Ngaire Dawn Porter; Barry Crump, New Zealand’s harbinger of Australia’s Harry Butler and Steve Irwin, and a host of others.

Fred Dagg

The cultural probe then appeared as Fred Dagg, the shorts and singlet clad, gumboot-wearing farmer whose sunhat failed to tame a range of errant hair, and whose opening lines to camera might be “Gidday. I’d like to have a word or two with you about the Socratic Paradox, which, without being too technical about it, is a paradox worked out by the late Socrates in order to explain the pitfalls involved in explaining things.”

Dagg became and remains a Kiwi touchstone. A generation or so of followers found in him a quintessentially New Zealand humour that was new, distinctive, national, and not English even though Dagg and alter ego were avid followers of Milligan and the Goons. And it was funny. Tinkering has a hilarious House of Clarke interpretation of real estate and its purveyors. “A ‘cottage’ is a caravan with the wheels taken off” while “’magnificent’ view is an indication that the house has windows”.

If there was a recurrent theme from that time on in among the humour, insight, bubble pricking and general piss taking satire, then for me it was a kindly meant scepticism.

Recall, for example, all the marvellous characters who appeared in the Clarke and Dawe cameo over all those years.

Clarke and Dawe

One of the many classics was the mock interview with the then Senator Bob Collins, a Minister at the time a tanker was involved in a major accident and oil spill off the Australian coast. In what follows, Collins aka Clarke is interviewed by Dawe:

[Interviewer:] This ship that was involved in the incident off Western Australia this week…

[Senator Collins:] Yeah, the one the front fell off?

[Interviewer:] Yeah

[Senator Collins:] That’s not very typical, I’d like to make that point.

[Interviewer:] Well, how is it untypical?

[Senator Collins:] Well, there are a lot of these ships going around the world all the time, and very seldom does anything like this happen … I just don’t want people thinking that tankers aren’t safe.

[Interviewer:] Was this tanker safe?

[Senator Collins:] Well I was thinking more about the other ones…

[Interviewer:] The ones that are safe,,,

[Senator Collins:] Yeah,,, the ones the front doesn’t fall off.

[Interviewer:] Well, if this wasn’t safe, why did it have 80,000 tonnes of oil on it?

[Senator Collins:] Well, I’m not saying it wasn’t safe, it’s just perhaps not quite as safe as some of the other ones.

[Interviewer:] Why?

[Senator Collins:] Well, some of them are built so the front doesn’t fall off at all.

[Interviewer:] Wasn’t this built so the front wouldn’t fall off?

[Senator Collins:] Well, obviously not.

[Interviewer:] “How do you know?”

[Senator Collins:] Well, ‘cause the front fell off, and 20,000 tons of crude oil spilled into the sea, caught fire. It’s a bit of a give-away.” I would just like to make the point that that is not normal.

[Interviewer:] Well, what sort of standards are these oil tankers built to?

[Senator Collins:] Oh, very rigorous … maritime engineering standards.

[Interviewer:] What sort of things?

[Senator Collins:] Well the front’s not supposed to fall off, for a start.

[Interviewer:] And what other things?

[Senator Collins:] Well, there are … regulations governing the materials they can be made of

[Interviewer:] What materials?

[Senator Collins:] Well, Cardboard’s out

[Interviewer:] And?

[Senator Collins:] …No cardboard derivatives…

[Interviewer:] Like paper?

[Senator Collins:]. … No paper, no string, no cellotape. …

[Interviewer:] Rubber?

[Senator Collins:] No, rubber’s out .. Um, They’ve got to have a steering wheel. There’s a minimum crew requirement.”

[Interviewer:] What’s the minimum crew?

[Senator Collins:] Oh,… one, I suppose.

[Interviewer:] So, the allegations that they are just designed to carry as much oil a possible and to hell with the consequences, I mean that’s ludicrous…

[Senator Collins:] Ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. These are very, very strong vessels

[Interviewer:] So what happened in this case?

[Senator Collins:] Well, the front fell off in this case by all means, but that’s very unusual.

[Interviewer:] But Senator Collins, why did the front bit fall off?

[Senator Collins:] Well, a wave hit it.

[Interviewer:] A wave hit it?

[Senator Collins:] A wave hit the ship.

[Interviewer:] Is that unusual?

[Senator Collins:] Oh, yeah… At sea? …Chance in a million.

[Interviewer:] So what do you do to protect the environment in cases like this?

[Senator Collins:] Well, the ship was towed outside the environment.

[Interviewer:] Into another environment….

[Senator Collins:] No, no, no. it’s been towed beyond the environment, it’s not in the environment

[Interviewer:] Yeah, but from one environment to another environment.

[Senator Collins:] No, it’s beyond the environment, it’s not in an environment. It has been towed beyond the environment.

[Interviewer:] Well, what’s out there?

[Senator Collins:] Nothing’s out there…

[Interviewer:] Well there must be something out there

[Senator Collins:] There is nothing out there… all there is …. is sea …and birds ….and fish

[Interviewer:] And?

[Senator Collins:] And 20,000 tons of crude oil

[Interviewer:] And what else?

[Senator Collins:] And a fire

[Interviewer:] And anything else?

[Senator Collins:] And the part of the ship that the front fell off, but there’s nothing else out there.

[Interviewer:] Senator Collins thanks for joining us.

[Senator Collins:] It’s a complete void

[Interviewer:] Yeah, We’re out time

[Senator Collins:] The environment’s perfectly safe. …. We’re out of time?.. Can you book me a cab?

[Interviewer:] But didn’t you come in a commonwealth car?

[Senator Collins:] Yes, I did, but

[Interviewer:] What happened?

[Senator Collins:] The front fell off

Those hapless humans were all lampooned, but somehow you related to and even liked them despite their personal and professional deficiencies. They were everyone, person ordinaire, “there but for the grace of God go I” and “I know a bloke just like that” sort of people. When the politicians’ now favourite “does this pass the pub test” line came along, I wondered if they had ever watched JC because in many ways he invented that examination.

A myriad of examples capture all this, but the supposed interview with a “foreign correspondent” reporting from Washington on the 2016 Presidential race is among the best.  There is the cynical interviewer, the jaded correspondent, a disdain for politics and a quiet fatalism. Clarke at his best.

Since he left us it has been galling to wonder what he might have done with Malcolm Turnbull being fined for not wearing a life jacket; Australian politicians discovering they were ineligible to be in parliament because of claimed to be unknown dual citizenship (I would have loved to see Clarke on “Kiwi” Barnaby Joyce); the same sex marriage plebiscite; the latest throes of BREXIT; the rise of Jacindamania in New Zealand; Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un; Peter Dutton for Prime Minister and all the rest.

Sadly, we miss all that and more but Tinkering reminds us of what we had. John Clarke was and remains great.





Modern Crusades

Again, not sure where that time went but while it disappeared the world went mad. It now seems most members of the Australian parliament are ineligible to be there, thanks to the arcane wording of Section 44 in the Australian constitution created over a century ago. There is now a crusade against “otherness” at a time when “the other” actually dominates Australian life.

“Across the ditch”, as we say in this part of the world, a complex voting system sees New Zealand’s prime Minister coming from the second-only largest party in parliament, aided and abetted by a self-serving narcissist whose party lost support in the election along with the Greens whose vote halved. Kiwis, though, have shrugged it off whereas in Canberra the hysteria has risen rather than subsided.

Further afield, Harvey Weinstein’s outing as a predator has produced an avalanche of similar revelations, with Kevin Spacey decrowned as a great on-screen “bad” guy and installed as a real life one. Meanwhile America lurches continuously from reality show to farce and counter-farce with the Muppets apparently having taken over international relations. Crusades abound here.

Oh, and it looks like Rupert “the dirty digger” Murdoch might just have been done over by a toxic mix involving FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) and the Saudi royal family’s internal coup d’état.

You could not make this up, really, so I could plausibly claim to having been off air deliberately. Sadly, it was just bad organisation and a bigger than normal range of things to do that have had me shuttling between Queenstown and Sydney for a few months in connection with a non-writing project.

Amidst all that, though, I finished writing a true crime biography about Etienne Jean Brocher, a troubled French kid who, aged seventeen in 1874, ran away to New Zealand and was promptly jailed for theft. Then he married the daughter of a French settler, became a photographer, racked up debts and family problems so ran away again, back to France. Entering the army he was jailed, then sent to Algeria to be jailed again and dishonourably discharged from one of the world’s worst military units, a spectacular achievement. Banned from France now, he went back to New Zealand, married again without first divorcing, then was found guilty of a double murder he might not have done. Brocher was executed by a drunk who was New Zealand’s hangman for forty years.

Brocher’s defence lawyer bred the 1916 Melbourne Cup winner – Rekindling won it this past week 101 years later. For New Zealanders, winning the Cup is almost as big a crusade as the All Blacks winning in perpetuity.

Now the Brocher book is finding a publishing home. One highlight during this “silent” period was a couple of days spent in Auckland at the Michael King Centre’s Writers Weekend with a gaggle of other people who spend their lives putting words on paper.   It was great listening to New Zealand luminaries like C.K. Stead who admitted to years of being nervous when lecturing to students at Auckland University, a reminder that no one was taught how to teach at university back then and in some cases even now. One magic session was with Jef Kay who demonstrated how writers might better use Facebook. Yes, FANG struck there, too, a timely reminder of how the world is changing.

As we all know, that change extends into publishing as well.   There are more and more writers but fewer and fewer traditional outlets, hence the rise of self-publishing and derivatives thereof. Several publishers spoke revealingly about all this, so we all went away reminded that if you want to write and appear in the bookstores, then you’d better be damned good. That means endless tinkering with books like mine on Brocher, the endless efforts to make it right.

Somewhere in there I also found time to do a screen writing course at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Arts here in Sydney) that has led to a new friend, Marc Rosenberg who ran the course and is also a great fan of Dodgers baseball. When they lost the recent World Series to the Astros, Marc and I mixed baseball tragic with screenplay principles. After all, searching for that first pennant since 1989 is a crusade, too.

That screenplay approach is entering the broader prose writing world to good effect and is a useful thing to know about – though I do have ideas for a film and a play as well.   Now where will that time come from?

And there has been time to read. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is being re-read.   It was held up last year as a marker to how Trump won and Clinton lost all those traditionally democratic states. They were each on a crusade. I’m not sure the book is that great a guide there, but it is a fabulous read about America in change as well as an analysis of a significant subculture. And the guy can write, too, a great point of difference.

The Whites

It does not always work, though, it seems. One of the best novels/crime fiction I have read in the past few years is The Whites by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt. It is about cops righting wrongs, as they see it, and Price just gets it all right: characters, plot, story line, setting, context. Yet it won very few if any prizes while other, in my view, lesser books did. Who knows how it all works?

Mind you, there have also been some great winners. Jane Harper’s The Dry has won justifiably just about everything going including a Ned Kelly Award in Australia and the Gold Dagger in the UK. Adrian McKinty’s Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly has been similarly successful as has Mick Herron’s Spook Street. There is some great stuff out there.

And I have been reading plays, too. Several years ago I saw one of the best stage plays ever, Hugh Whitemore’s A Letter of Resignation set around Harold Macmillan and the Profumo affair. Reading it is a joy: the prose/dialogue is marvellous and so is the spare capturing of characters. His A Great Year For Plums is similarly terrific on the Suez Crisis, mixing political and personal lives.

This mix of crusade and writing led me to a book on the man who indirectly helped me become an historian. Way back then I arrived at history as a choice after being disillusioned by geography and English in their university shapes. And I was none too enthralled by history, either, until I happened to do a course on the Crusades taught by J.J. Saunders, a legendary teacher at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. At the heart of that course was a three volume work imaginatively titled A History of the Crusades that had appeared about a decade earlier.

Inevitably, when looked at now, it was written from the viewpoint of the “Crusaders” themselves, those Westerners gone out to what we now call the “Middle East” (an early twentieth century term coined by journalist Sir Valentine Chirol) to overthrow the Muslim states that had emerged there following the rise of the Prophet. It would be 1978 before Edward Said’s Orientalism turned the telescope around and inspired works like Amin Malouf’s The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

Runciman Crusades

Sir Steven Runciman wrote that three volume work that switched me into history. He told a story based around people and personality, captured moment and detail while maintaining narrative sweep and direction. Above all, he made it exotic and meaningful. Years later, I remembered all that as I scrambled through Kraak des Chevaliers in Syria, Karak in Jordan and all those other castles that were part of the Crusades. Because of Runciman, when I did that I felt like Salah-ad-Din (Saladin in the West) and Richard the Lionheart were right there with me. History lived, because of Runciman.

So when I spotted Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: the Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman in Sydney’s Abbey Bookshop, I grabbed it enthusiastically.


It is massive, and probably should have been edited back. Being Minshaw’s first book, he put into it just about every scrap of information possible and elaborated on all of them so that the storyline sometimes disappears for a few pages. That is not unusual, and was not what made me come away disappointed.

That came from Runciman himself, or at least the way he emerges from the book. Born into a wealthy and influential family he was also bright, ferociously so, and took to languages as easily as he did to writing and researching (even if he was not an “archive rat” as the modern profession demands, he was a secondary sources man predominantly). Because of the wealth and the family networks, he was at the heart of the Establishment with that link contoured further by his being gay.

Had he lived into these Weinsteinian and Spaceyrian times he might well have been described as a privileged predator who ran personal vendettas, won coveted positions for reasons other than professional, was arrogant, opinionated and snobbish while being self-obsessed to the utmost. For me, he emerged as an unsympathetic character, an exploiter of people, positions and power.

That goes immediately to a question for our times. In Australia, for example, the artist Donald Friend was a celebrated figure until his private diaries, lodged in the National Library of Australia, revealed him as having been a serial pederast, especially on the island of Bali where he lived for several years. Now his works are displayed rarely, and their value has declined. These days we have somehow to separate Spacey from the work: House of Cards is a major achievement (I prefer the earlier English version but this new one is brilliant and started the Netflix revolution), as was much of his work on the London stage. How do we regard that?

Before the Fall

The Runciman story comes in two parts for me. I still regard his Crusades trilogy as a marvellous, pre-Saidian achievement that did get me into history. The second is a reminder that no work is clinically detached from its writer, good or bad. That I remembered when happening upon a review of my A House in Damascus: before the Fall. The reviewer thought me “a very leftwing liberal who blames the West for branding Syria a terrorist country incorrectly”. Where would I begin unpacking that? The point, though, is that whatever I right has an angle, and whoever reads whatever I write brings to it another.

For that we should be grateful because it means we can struggle towards resolving contested problems like all those that headed this piece. And it also means I can still remember Runciman as the man who helped steer me towards history and writing. For that I am extremely grateful.


Not Wasting Away

As usual, it took the great Jimmy Buffett to put some perspective on things.

The past four months have been a blur. In rough order I wrote and anguished over a murder mystery dinner at a local resort; mixed with a stack of wonderful artists; toured some wonderful American friends down the fabulous West Coast of New Zealand; did a few photographic assignments; helped deliver a higher education development project in Sydney; became involved in developing a local community arts group; did some archival research for a new book; and then, of course, delivered the cruise lectures between China and India alluded to in the previous (and lamentably long ago) post to this blog.


The two weeks in India that followed were spent in Mumbai, Udaipur, Jaipur and Delhi. Udaipur was the knockout as we stayed in an old style haveli looking out over Lake Pachola and spent time searching for fabrics and other craft works, and finding great food. If you ever doubt climate change, though, the heatwave has hit northern India early this year. Both Jaipur and Delhi were 40C in late March, close to 10C above the normal range.

Being back in India was wonderful and we met some great new friends. It all reminded me why I have spent so much time there and written so much about it over so many years.

The day after we got back to Queenstown my brother Ian and wife Rhonda arrived from Perth to spend terrific time with us. Then we headed to Christchurch where, first, I gave a lecture at the University of Canterbury, my alma mater, did more archival research, then was photographer at a family wedding involving Dylan, the eldest son of my brother Lindsay and his wife Jen, and Haley Beckemeyer from the USA whose parents and siblings made the long journey out. That was another great occasion.


While we were there, however, Sandi noticed that Jimmy Buffett would be playing in Christchurch the following Friday night. So we drove six hours back to Queenstown, I processed all the photographs, then we drove six hours back for Jimmy.

We have been forever fans of his “country & ocean” work, and he is one of the greatest singer songwriters of his generation, the master of the one liner. He wrote Five O’Clock Somewhere, Alan Jackson’s great hit that underscored his genius:

The work day passes like molasses in wintertime

I’m getting paid by the hour and older by the minute

Now if I could write like that.


We are such fans that way back in the last millennium when we went first to the Caribbean, we chartered a yacht for a week to go to St Bart’s (Saint-Barthelemy) from St Martin. Why? Because at that time Jimmy owned a bar there, the Autour de Rocher, commemorated later in a song of the same name. (He likes bars. One of his performance lines is that a particular episode in his life occurred because he “was over-served in a bar”. Marvellous). The yacht was owned by a Frenchwoman, a brilliant chef, and skippered by a Frenchman who had lived in the region for years and completed several Atlantic crossings in small boats. We got to St Bart’s, paid homage at the bar, sailed back, saw the rich and famous in their super yachts, and spent a magic afternoon sailing of Anguilla, up on the bow, sipping Heinekens, listening to Jimmy on Walkmans (yes, it was a way back), and watching the dolphins who came along for the trip.

Consequently, the Live In Anguilla double album is the most played item in my iTunes collection.

On a more sombre note, many years later when my great friend Ken McPherson died I was back in India and unable to be at his funeral. We had planned to write a book together on Seringapatam, the fort town in southern India where in 1799 Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington) defeated Tipu Sultan to finalise British power in India. On the day of the funeral I had travelled to Seringapatam, climbed through some fences, found a place on the ruined ramparts, and during the time of the service texted back to Perth:

Yes I am a pirate, two hundred years too late

The cannons don’t thunder, there’s nothing to plunder

I’m an over-forty victim of fate

Arriving too late, arriving too late

(Buffett, J. A Pirate Looks At Forty)


Later again, I got to a Buffett concert at the fairgrounds in Tampa, Florida and it was one of the great experiences. The gig was great, of course, but so was everything else. The “parrotheads” (his fans) had arrived two days early to jam the parking lot and party. One guy arrived in a pickup truck towing a sailboat around which he dotted plastic palm trees and spread several bags of sand, then set up a bar. My friend pointed out some serious fans wearing hula skirts and not much else. Each year, he told me, they donated money to a local university to fund PhD research into the Caribbean ocean environments.

No wonder we like the guy, then, but what does that have to do with anything that opened this post?

Well, it gets busy sometimes and I start to whinge that it is all a problem, I’m not writing enough, or it’s all out of control, or something of all of those or along the same lines. As Sandi points out, though, quoting Buffet, J. “it’s my own damn fault” (from the immortal Margaritaville) and that, really, it is a hell of a problem to have.

Indeed, and Jimmy’s most recent concert reminded me of that:

Like a novel from the five and time

Take another road in another time

(Take Another Road)

Those roads and times this year already have taken me around the South Island and out to Australia, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Colombo and India. And while I haven’t written I have read and have lined up a lot to read and learn from.

In the former category Jane Harper’s The Dry is simply a revelation of fabulous writing. Ovidia Yu’s Aunty Lee’s Delights is set in Singapore and attracted me because of its Straits Chinese community focus. Ankush Saikia’s Dead Meat tells a grim story of the modern and sprawling Delhi. Chan Ho-kei’s The Borrowed is a very clever episodic story of cops and robbers set in Hong Kong. And Keigo Higashimo’s The Devotion of Suspect X deserves all the praise lavished on it because the plot and storyline are among the cleverest you will find.

The lined up to be read list is headed by someone I should have read a long time ago. Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs books have thousands of adoring Amazon fans, so thanks to long standing friend Angela Bollard for tipping me off. I also have Susan Oleksiw’s Anita Ray’s mysteries to read and am looking forward to those because they are set in Kerala, and because Susan also has an academic background in India as well.

On top of that we binge-watched the British TV series, The Game, a slightly odd but compelling spy story set in the 1970s. Now watching Blindspot where a tattooed woman is left in a bag in Times Square in New York. In the search for her identity it emerges (a) that she may be an off the radar SEAL as well as (b) the lead investigator’s neighbourhood friend who went missing twenty years earlier. In spite of some OTT moments it is one of those rare American shows that has a great presence. Another is Grace and Frankie in which two husbands and law partners abandon their wives to set up as a gay couple. The wives (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) are forced to move in together as the seriously odd couple of functioning alcoholic control freak and 1960s hippie refugee. They are marvellous, but Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen do not work as well. The latest season of Homeland awaits, along with a few other new series.

In a couple of weeks I get to go to the Dunedin Writer’s Festival and hear Ian Rankin, Stella Duffy and John Lanchester among others.    That will be inspiring, and help further propel me to finish the true crime book and the other things I am trying to complete so I can then focus on the new projects lined up already.

It’s those changes in latitudes

Changes in attitudes nothing remains quite the same

With all of our running and all of our cunning

If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.

(Changes In Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes)

Thanks Jimmy, we are of an age and attitude.


Every now and then, inspiration comes along in unexpected form to boost ideas and, sometimes, “output” as now described in modern parlance.

The last few months have been and the next couple will be mad, in the sense that the timetable is packed. But great, in that we are seeing friends and family as well as preparing for the latest series of cruise ship lectures.

Those will be delivered on board Holland America’s Amsterdam for the Xingang (China) through to Mumbai (India) sector of the annual Round The World voyage.

As usual there will be a wild mix of subjects including: the modern history of Shanghai, South China Sea excitement, French Indo-China, how Mr. Honda’s small motor bike changed Southeast Asia, the Straits Chinese, Indian Ocean tensions, India’s business and labour world and, of course, cricket in India. There is a bit of work in putting this all together across history, art, literature and the rest, but I have fun delivering them and we end up befriending some of the passengers.

Comments from those passengers over the series help shape my approach to this, so I now see the lectures more as stories or tales and am always on the lookout for an amazing character or feature or event that helps shape the pitch.

In a way it is like working up an approach to a publisher or an agent: what magic bit in here grabs the audience?

The Honda story is a great example. Anyone who has visited Southeast Asia talks about the traffic, especially the motorbikes. Working from that and showing all the mad things that occur (eight people on a bike, cages of ducks etc), I describe how the new mobility enabled by the bikes has changed small business, family ties, and even personal relationships and dating patterns. So when people then see the traffic again, they have an added insight into what it all means, hopefully.

The lectures rest heavily on visual imagery and representation, and the search for those images has made me more aware of “looking” for the new or the alternative. I was reminded of that by the sad news that John Berger had died after a full and productive life. His Ways Of Seeing was a sociology that had an early impact on my thinking and outlook.   So did Edward Said’s Orientalism.   And it is no accident that both of those works lurk throughout the cruise lectures. Both works emphasised the importance of the visual in the formation and transformation of cultures, and the impact of those visuals on the evolution of attitudes and outlooks of people and society. In that way they were helped, too, by the work of Roland Barthes, the great French analyst who also had an impact on me. His Empire of Signs, for example, gave a marvellous insight into Japanese life and culture.

Just recently, we were on the New Zealand South Island’s West Coast with some Australian friends (and will be there again soon with some wonderful American friends we met on one of the ships and who hosted us in Michigan last year). While there, I took the opportunity to drive up to Okarito, a tiny place famous for three things.


First, the white heron/great egret (or kotoku in Maori) colony discovered first in 1865. The bird is found in China, Japan, India and Australia as well as New Zealand where this is the only breeding site. The beautiful plumage became desirable so that by 1941 there were just four nests left. The place was declared a reserve and every breeding season there might be up to 250 birds in residence.

This is the only place to see them en masse in New Zealand that requires a trip with the excellent local tour company, well worth the effort.

You might, however, glimpse a kotoku elsewhere in the area, like this one in a tributary of the Waiatoto River further to the south.


(Imagine, though, the sense of irony in the ease of seeing these ones outside the walls and nets of the Osaka Zoo in Japan before another Holland America voyage).


Second, Okarito has been the long time home of Keri Hulme, winner of the 1985 Booker Prize with what to this point has been her only book, The Bone People. The mystical elements in the book were all inspired by her surroundings and upbringing, and every interview with her really emphasises that fact.

Third, and significant here, Okarito now hosts the gallery run by Andris Apse, probably New Zealand’s best and certainly its most well known landscape photographer. It was this gallery I drove up to see, and to meet Andris who is a wonderfully approachable and down to earth person whose humility is hugely at odds with the magnificent and expansive New Zealand images he produces.

In many ways his work has been some of the most influential in representing the “natural”, “pure” New Zealand so loved by tourists and tourist operators.

Of course, there is no doubting the impact of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit as shot by Peter Jackson – while writing this I am looking out to Kelvin Heights where some scenes from LOTR were shot, and my neighbour’s film safety company is just one of the many recipients of all that those films and others have produced.

Around the world, though, Andris Apse has produced images for over forty years that have shaped a view of New Zealand as this majestic, mystical and almost magical place where there is always tranquillity, beauty and reinvigoration. Traffic woes in Auckland, house prices in Queenstown, the struggle for economic survival on the Coast itself, the cost as well as the benefit of the mushrooming dairy industry, and the infrastructure challenges brought on by all those tourists do not really appear here – but their backdrop make me and others think about how that wonderful world Andris portrays is to be preserved.


As I drove back down to Haast from Okarito through the persistent rain, I was inspired to stop and take some photographs myself. New Zealand does that to you. That is why occasionally here now you will drive around a bend to find a car or a campervan parked in the middle of the road, its occupants out taking photographs. That is a local hazard in the Southern Lakes.

But I was also thinking about how, like artists and photographers, writers are also really trying to form and transfer images or depictions of people, places and events. That is why we aspire to be like them, to be as good as them at creating compelling pictures of how something happens.

And that is why the best of them are so good, and why they make it so easy. Ian Rankin’s latest, Rather Be The Devil, is an excellent example. Dialogue and story both flow effortlessly, the characters are compelling. It is as if he had simply sat down and rolled it out.

As Andris Apse comments, though, images that look like divine and opportune moments when the photographer just happened along are, almost always, the culmination of an enormous amount of work, planning and time. He has a wonderful panoramic shot of Okarito and its lagoon, for example. In reality, he imagined the shot, created a shooting point, then visited that point regularly for two years before capturing the image he had imagined at the outset.

That is just like Rankin’s writing and that of, say, Val McDermid, Phillip Kerr, Sarah Paretsky, Michael Connolly, Tess Gerritsen, Peter Temple, Jane Harper, Greg McGee/Alix Bosco and Paddy Richardson among so many others.

When surveying their imagery, then, we must think also about all the work that went into creating that work, as we do when taking in the wonderful images from people like Andris Apse.

And, of course, as writers, we are reminded constantly of the need to work harder at producing the very best possible imagery, that is the on-going challenge.