Party time

Amos Pollock takes a swing at the piñata during his dinosaur-themed fifth birthday party (click for image credit)

Amos Pollock takes a swing at the piñata during his dinosaur-themed fifth birthday party (click for image credit)

The end-of-year party season is upon us, and this prompted me to see how well Te Ara does parties. I plugged ‘party’ into the search box and was greeted with an array of entries and images about political parties – not quite what I had in mind.

Super-stylish 1970s dinner party featuring matching outfits and wallpaper (click for image credit)

Super-stylish 1970s dinner party featuring matching outfits and wallpaper (click for image credit)

Luckily, the party-on variety soon cropped up in the image and media page. After party pills comes this fabulous 1970s dinner party where the guests’ attire merges with the floral wallpaper. Then there’s a 1956 film of a chimps’ tea party at the Wellington Zoo, a decorous garden party in 1900 and a 1930s-style outdoor dance party. Remember The Gathering? One big party at Tākaka to see in the new year. I went to the 2000 monsoon Gathering and was reminded why buying a cheap tent is never a good idea. Matariki heralds the Māori new year, and we are now seeing more mid-winter Matariki celebrations.

Pōhutukawa fairies party with native birds in this Avis Higgs illustration (click for image credit)

Pōhutukawa fairies party with native birds in this Avis Higgs illustration (click for image credit)

We’ve got writer/artist Avis Higgs’s cute pōhutukawa fairies party, public humiliation at a stag party and a 1955 cross-dressing party. These blokes in drag are not quite so elegant.

Cakes and keys: turning 21 in 1961 (click for image credit)

Cakes and keys: turning 21 in 1961 (click for image credit)

Our Birthdays and wedding anniversaries entry is party central. I love Jacqueline Fahey’s evocative painting ‘The birthday party’, with the exhausted nana staring glumly at the viewer, surrounded by party detritus. The adults are having much more fun at this birthday party (which happens to be my son’s fifth). This entry would not be complete without the ritual that is downing the yardie on your 21st. This 21st of 1961 is a tad more demure.

My favourite party entry is the Nightclubs one. From the glam to the seedy, it’s a fascinating history of public partying in New Zealand.

Tactile, squishy, squelchy, sticky art

Rock art at Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre, Timaru (click for image credit)

Rock art at Te Ana Māori Rock Art Centre, Timaru (click for image credit)

Painting can be such a lovely squishing squelchy tactile art, don’t you think? Think how much fun it might have been to mix up soot with oil from berries and weka, or to pick up some kōkōwai (iron oxide) and then start painting on a huge rock canvas with your hands. Or to sit down looking out at a landscape you (and no others of your ethnicity) had ever seen before and quickly, with a large brush, and lots of water, paint the scene before you. (See this piece in Art New Zealand, footnote 5, for a description of William Fox’s technique.)

This month the four entries we’re highlighting all include painting – Māori rock art – ngā toi ana, Public and street art, Contemporary Māori art – ngā toi hōu and (unsurprisingly) the Painting entry itself.

You can’t see me, but as I sit here writing this, I’m waving my hands around, now in imitation of the quick thick strokes of a man painting outside, working quickly, quickly, before the light changes – look at the strokes of colour that build up Edward Friström’s ‘Motutapu. Large oil paintings, done back in the studio, have a different feel, the layers of paint slowly built up over time, glazes gliding across the canvas, creating the near-photographic nature of Charles Goldie’s work.

Working on street murals, slopping and rolling the paint on the vast spaces or working with spray cans, is different again, with the rattle of the can, the hiss of the spray, the full body movement of the artist, the dripping of paint down the wall. The pouring and swirling of enamel, as Pat Hanly did in ‘Pacific condition, uses the physical nature of paint to create the work itself. It just makes you want to grab some paint, stick your hands in it and swirl it all around. Another technique that sounds like it might be both sticky and fun is egg tempera – mixing pigment, egg yolk and water, a centuries-old form of paint that both Grahame Sydney and Isiaha Barlow use in their work.

Underdrawings are visible in this 1943 mural from the Communist Party hall in Wellington (click for image credit)

Underdrawings are visible in this 1943 mural from the Communist Party hall in Wellington (click for image credit)

As you might guess, I am a gallery attendant’s nightmare, wanting to peer and poke and stroke and smooth. Luckily one of the lovely things about the internet is that it is now possible to experience paintings in other ways, without damaging the works, although the smell of soot and oil, of turps, of spray paint, is still missing. But you can zoom in to see the brushstrokes and the underdrawings, or view Ralph Hotere sanding, coating, buffing and painting immaculately straight lines for a mural. Conservators are also using the internet to show people their work with paintings – such as this series of images from Christchurch Art Gallery about the Leo Bensemann painting ‘St Olaf’, or this one from Te Papa, which talks about Colin McCahon’s Northland panels and his use of house paint.

However, although the internet can do many things, and has opened up a world of art, I still think that being able to go and view or make art yourself is fantastic. So, if you can this month, go and view some painting, or grab a toddler and paints and experiment making marks yourself. Go squishy squashy sticky sloppy painting mad!

Remembering the Pike River 29

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Wednesday 19 November is the fourth anniversary of the explosion at the Pike River mine on the West Coast, which killed 29 men in 2010. There is added poignancy with the recent announcement that there will be no further attempts to recover the bodies. The anniversary is being marked this year by a television documentary, Dreams lie deeper, featuring a vocal tribute by Dave Dobbyn and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington.

This was the seventh major disaster in a New Zealand coal mine. A total of 210 men have lost their lives in such disasters. All were due to explosions by methane gas given off by coal or asphyxiation by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, formed after a fire or explosion.

As with most coal mine disasters, the Pike River tragedy would not have happened if established safety precautions had been followed. Both the Royal Commission report and Rebecca Macfie’s book Tragedy at Pike River Mine reveal a series of problems that were consistently overlooked by the board of directors and the executive managers of Pike River Coal Ltd in their rush to get production under way. For months before the explosion there had been reports of excess methane and other health and safety problems. The safety inspectors employed by the Labour Department were overworked, and relied on reports by the company that all safety requirements were being complied with.

One of the main recommendations of the Royal Commission was that the government should set up an independent safety organisation. Worksafe New Zealand now has statutory responsibility for all safety issues in the workplace, with a designated High Hazards Unit for industries such as coal mining and oil exploration.

Last year the Orpheus Choir of Wellington asked Dave Dobbyn to write a piece dedicated to the 29 men who died in the Pike River mine. The documentary (Wednesday 19 November, 9.30 p.m. on TV1) follows Dobbyn as he travels to Greymouth to meet members of the victims’ families and completes the composition and arrangement of ‘This love’ with Mark Dorrell. As the lyrics evolved, Dobbyn chose to focus on the love and memories of the families rather than bitterness about the events leading up to the disaster. You can listen online to the Orpheus Choir and Wellington Young Voices singing ‘This love’.

Matters of style

The first section of W. H. Oliver's notes on editorial style, typewritten for DNZB staff around 1986

The first section of W. H. Oliver's notes on editorial style, typewritten for DNZB staff around 1986 (click to see a larger version)

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography General Editor W. H. Oliver must have compiled these notes, reproduced in full below, for DNZB staff on his typewriter about 1986. It was shortly before I (and Nancy Swarbrick, now Te Ara’s senior editor) joined the team that worked on the five-volume magnum opus, which was published between 1990 and 2000, along with its Māori-language companion, Ngā Tāngata Taumata Rau. These notes have remained my guiding principles in setting the editorial style for Te Ara, of which the DNZB is now part.

The section on style is a succinct statement of the principles that have guided us, and also demonstrates Bill Oliver’s own limpid and delectable way with words.

Although the notes were written for the particular circumstances of the new and ground-breaking project, they capture the essence of how to deal with multiple authors on a collaborative project of reference and authority, as well as being a delightful piece of prose in their own right.

Bill Oliver is a poet as well as a distinguished historian. You can read more about him in Te Ara …

Bill Oliver, seen here as a young academic with pipe (click for image credit)

Bill Oliver, seen here as a young academic with pipe (click for image credit)

Editorial Principles and Practices

1. Principles

(a) Unless a major rewrite is necessary, preserve and if possible enhance the characteristics of the original, so that it does not lose the ’signature’ of the writer.

(b) Look always for economy, but avoid over-compression leading to dense, congested and knotty prose (like this!).

(c) Be on guard against the omission of aspects of a life which, perhaps, bore the writer, or are not germane to his/her thesis, but which deserve a place in a reference work.

(d) Note, for further discussion, instances where a writer ignores fairly acceptable views with which he/she does not agree.

(e) Keep in mind the possibility that the originally assigned length may have been too great or too small, and note arguments for either expansion or contraction.

(f) When, as will be generally the case, the received length exceeds the assigned length, begin with the assumption that the assigned length was about right, and edit towards that length.

2. More on Length

Note at the outset the disparity between assigned and received lengths. If the received length is the greater, consider this as a prima facie case for reduction, and look for very strong arguments before concluding that the assigned length was inadequate. If the two are about the same, still look for chances to economise. If the received length is shorter, take care to look for significant omissions. In all cases, keep in mind the possibility that the assigned length was too generous.

3. Matters of Substance

(a) Ensure that the opening paragraph has a ‘thumb-nail sketch’: character, major items of life-data, note of occupation/activity/significance, main period and region.

(b) Be severe on over-elaborate detail - e.g. office-holding, particulars of military engagements, business interests and connections, electoral fortunes, family connections.

(c) Precis over-long passages on parts of career outside New Zealand.

(d) Note absence of physical description and indication of personality where (e. g. in longer essays on eminent subjects) it would be reasonable to expect it.

(e) Note when quotations, matters of fact not common knowledge, unusual opinions, lack a footnote reference.

4. Matters of Style

(a) Note, and consider the necessity of, phrases which weaken a statement and allow the writer to avoid making up his/her mind. Very often such a phrase as “It may have been the case that he/she believed…. ” should simply read “He/she believed…”

(b) Eliminate, except in unusual cases, phrases which relate to evidence rather than conclusions. Most of the time “There is some evidence to suggest that he/she believed….” should become “He/she believed….” (or at most “probably he/she believed…”.)

(c) Names of sources, authorities, other historians etc should never (well, hardly ever) be cited in the text. If a writer will not endorse a viewpoint, then he/she should not put it forward. If conflicting views are being rehearsed, they should be set out as simply as possible, without ascription.

(d) Eliminate all throat clearing openings to sentences - “In this connection….” “It should be noted that….” “As was shown earlier…. ” There is hardly ever a good reason for using words like “Furthermore”, “Moreover” and so on.

(e) Passages of deep-breathing will quite frequently be found. These are limbering-up exercises, quite useful to the writer in getting ready to say something, but of no use to the reader.

(f) Eliminate phrases in which historians are nodding and winking to each other , and making allusions which the general reader will find baffling e. g. “King Charles’s head”, “crossing the Rubicon”, “road to Damascus”, “noblest Roman of them all” - i.e. pretty well everything that is a disguised quotation, usually from the Bible or Shakespeare.

(g) Regard all adjectives with an element of suspicion, and pairs of adjectives with acute suspicion. E. g. “Grey’s characteristic honesty”, or “Grey was an honest and straightforward man”.

5. Golden Rule

Remember always that writers are expected to write an entry in a reference book, not an article in a learned journal, or a thesis, or a full length book, and that they will often be far more used to these leisurely genres than to a brief essay.

WHO [W. H. Oliver]

Confessions of a Bird of the Year campaign manager

Percy Bagnall's colour lithograph of two black-backed gulls with typically smug expressions

Percy Bagnall's colour lithograph of two black-backed gulls with unpleasantly smug expressions (click for image credit)

Last November I posted about that great New Zealand institution (yes, I reckon I can call it that now) the annual Bird of the Year poll.

For the following 12 months I harboured a secret longing to become a Bird of the Year campaign manager for one particular candidate – the brown skua. Like most New Zealanders I love an underdog, and anyway brown skuas are cool. Did you know they often live in family units with a female head of nest-hold who takes two or more mates?

As November 2014 approached, I emailed the Bird of the Year folks and begged to be a campaign manager. I was sure I was early enough to stake my claim to the brown skua, but NO! Who’d got in first? Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei – whose winning 2013 campaign for the mōhua propelled that bird to superstardom!

Okay – next choice. It was suggested to me that a similarly reviled underdog was the black-backed gull. You know – the one that would eat your leftover fish and chips plus a passing duckling all in one gulp?

I was sold!

I decided to plan a negative campaign. I mean, really, why would you vote for these pests? Black-backed gulls are ‘super-abundant’. They’re the only native birds – apart from the self-introduced spur-winged plover – that are NOT protected under the Wildlife Act, and for good reason. Aided and abetted by humans, black-backed gull populations have exploded over the last century or so.

I decided my campaign would encourage people not to vote for the black-backed gull, but instead for some of the rarer native birds that it displaces or attacks. To that end, I invented a gull character – Captain Cack the Black-back – from whom all campaigning would ostensibly come.

Next I invited one of my favourite local illustrators – Gavin Mouldey – to join in as co-manager, which he happily did. (He lives in Wellington’s Island Bay and beach life is a major theme in his work.)

Captain Cack’s initial campaign blurb was deemed ‘too controversial’ to go onto the main Seabird of the Year site – although you can see parts of it regurgitated (because that’s what birds do) on the campaign blog and more will be added soon.

Cack also, appropriately, has a Twitter account – which I have to be careful not to post from over-zealously! Today in Cack’s Twitter feed was a lovely announcement about buff weka chicks hatching, along with a photo of the adorable little things.

In my head I heard Cack say, ‘Yum!’ and before I knew it, that was what I/Cack had tweeted in reply.

It was several minutes before I realised that no matter how much in the spirit of humour my tweet was, it could seriously offend the people who posted the chick photo. So I deleted it.

(Actually I was travelling on the Wairarapa train at the time, and just as I thought to delete the tweet, the train went into the second-longest tunnel in New Zealand, and I had to wait many excruciating minutes until I had cellphone coverage again – all the while desperately hoping no one would be offended in the meantime.)

So that was day two of the campaign. There are three weeks in all for us campaign managers to get our messages across and for YOU to vote - you have until 24 November.

But whatever you do – don’t back the black-backs!