Collisions of coal: an author’s perspective

My biography of coal in New Zealand was published this month by David Bateman Ltd. It’s a book taking as its subject a ‘thing’, but in reality telling the human side of that ‘thing’ in all its dimensionality.

Coal 200 pxReview comments so far have been excellent – ‘this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark‘ and ‘a fascinating read…such a good way of understanding NZ history‘ among them.

It was certainly fascinating to write. I’ve been trunking on in this blog about ways and techniques of writing – well, this book represents one way I put those things into practise.

All writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – must have structure, a theme, a dynamic around which to take the reader on an emotional journey. In fiction, that’s the character arc. In non-fiction, the author has to find something else; and for me the obvious angle was the intersection between humanity and this unique – almost chance – product of nature. That gave me the organising principle for the book, the thread around which I could weave the story. To do that I had to draw together a whole lot of thinking in areas that – on the face of it – seem quite disparate, but which in reality are all expressions of the one thing, our relationship with the world and with ourselves.

It was a story of collisions. You can’t tell the story of coal without delving into how it came to be, product of peat swamps and geological processes that, in New Zealand’s case, stretch over sixty million years. To give that context I decided to set it against the span of human existence – which, at best, is a tiny fraction of that time. The time during which we have dug up and burned that coal is shorter still, a tiny eye-blink against the span of years during which our coal resources formed.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

This digger at the Stockton open cast coal mine is way bigger than it seems.

The question follows – why have we been so profligate in our burning? The answer, also explored in the book, flows from our nature and the way we think. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, when New Zealand’s coal was first exploited on an industrial scale, was an age of a particular style of thinking. It was common across the industrialising world but particularly evident on the whole colonial frontier from the United States to Australia and South Africa – and one of the key drivers of the impecunious pace with which we dug up and burned the coal.

That same thinking also introduced another side of the human story of coal – our attitudes to it; the way we relied on it and yet also saw those who dug it as a social threat; and the way we relentlessly found news ways of exploiting it.

One theme became increasingly clear throughout. We have been digging and burning coal, not just in New Zealand but around the world, with ever-increasing pace in the last 250 years. The fact that coal is no longer burned in domestic homes has disguised the fact that in the last few dozen years particularly, that pace has skyrocketed.

Today, coal combustion produces 43 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Nearly half. And the jury is back on climate change. It’s happening – and it’s an own goal. Big time. Making coal the chief villain.

That was why I ended the book the way I did. With – a well, you’ll just have to check it out for yourselves.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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My problem, as a bloke, with Top Gear, number plates and laddish silliness

I can’t see what the fuss is over Top Gear’s provocative Porsche number plate – you know, the one that got Jeremy Clarkson and the rest hustled out of Argentina before the wrath of a mob.

Aha - Clarkson's book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his...

Aha – Clarkson’s book on display in Whitcoulls, Wellington. My book directly behind his (and in front of Julia Gillard’s).

Allegedly it was an off-colour reference to the British victory in the Falklands War of 1982. Personally I figure Clarkson’s protestations of innocence are correct. I mean, apart from anything else, wringing the meaning out of those letters demanded a fair amount of subtle thinking, and Top Gear isn’t exactly subtle. It’s a show about ‘Brit lads’ being ‘laddish’ with lad’s toys on a big budget with the help of a slick production team, some very fast sports cars and a good deal of British public school potty humour. This is the show, after all, who claim their engineering workshop is in Penistone. And who did have an intended ‘substitute’ plate for the Porsche reading ‘Be11end’.

Surprisingly, Top Gear didn’t make a point of visiting Urenui when the show came here. Depending how you translate it, the name is Te Reo Maori for ‘Great Courage’ or ‘Big Penis’. Instead Clarkson damaged one Toyota Corolla on a narrow bridge and drove another up Ninety Mile Beach. Not uber-fast, either. Once, the beach was the racing track where Norman ‘Wizard’ Smith went for 300 mph in an aero-engined streamliner in 1931, just in case anybody thought the Land Speed Record was exclusive to people named Campbell (Smith missed). But today it’s legally a public road, with a speed limit. (OK, so Clarkson’s Corolla wasn’t thrashed, it just got salt and sand sprayed through engine and running gear. I hope I never end up owning that one.)

You laugh at the British silliness. You think, ‘gee, I wish I had the chance to drive that’, that you could drive like The Stig, and that you too could play conkers with caravans. Or turn a Robin Reliant into a space shuttle. But to me, these days, Top Gear seems rather tired. Formula. There are, I suspect, limits as to how long a band of middle-aged men can cavort through our Sunday evening TV being big-budget yobbos.

Still, I can’t complain. My latest book ended up stacked, cover out, behind Clarkson’s the other day – and one can but hope that the reflected fame was, well, reflected in the sales…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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The three questions all authors must ask before starting

It’s amazing how many writing lessons I find in music. When I was a kid and learning music, there was an attitude that rock musicians were musical Neanderthals who could strum a few chords while making animal noises. ‘Proper’ music was ‘classical’, around which the Royal Schools grade courses I was doing was framed.

The panel of one of my analog synths... dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable.

The panel of one of my analog synths… dusty, a bit scratched, but still workable. Actually, these weren’t regarded as proper instruments when I was learning music, either…

The criteria for being a ‘proper’ musician, in short, wasn’t whether the performer provoked an emotional response in stadium-sized audiences and became a shaping force in western culture – but an ability to play 200-year old dinner muzak penned by Mozart, all built around diatonic chord progression – Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C No. 16, K. 545, for instance, uses chords running in descending fifths (vi-ii-V-I). The fact that ‘classical’ structure was a very narrow form of music – as Stockhausen, Cage, Varese and others revealed – didn’t enter into it.

The kicker? Rock music also uses diatonic chord progression – the usual string is I – V – vi – IV (try it, then sing Beatles ‘Let It Be’, Toto ‘Africa’, John Denver ‘Take Me Home’, etc). What’s more, the musicians who made it knew very well what they were doing. Some – like Rick Wakeman – were classically trained. When Ken Russell wanted to make a movie mashing rock music with Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, Wakeman did the adaptations.

Today? The genre ‘made it’, to my mind, when astrophysicist and Total Rock God Brian May played ‘God Save The Queen’, on electric guitar, on the roof of Buckingham Palace. By invitation. Awesome! Music is music, ‘classical’ is but one corner; and the people who get ahead have got the chops. Here’s Dutch singer Floor Jansen with ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ from Puccini’s 1918 comic opera Gianni Schicchi. Typical ‘classical’ singing – you know, when they didn’t have microphones and had to be heard over the orchestra.

And here’s Jansen again, with her band ReVamp:

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

Ernest Hemingway ( J F Kennedy Presidential library, released to public domain)

What does this have to do with writing? Attitudes of elitism are true of writing, too. Here in New Zealand, for instance, the academic community – on my experience – take the attitude that authors writing on their subjects for a popular market are not going to innovate – that these authors are ignorant of intellectual technique and not academically capable.  I used to get it all the time when I wrote history commercially – a supposition that work had to be judged solely against the narrow criteria demanded of the academy. I was simply an intruding Neanderthal who, presumably, would be better off leaving the territory to the real experts who filled their material with incomprehensible but ego-boosting sentences with the word ‘discourse’ in them. The fact that books written to academic criteria often don’t innovate – and are virtually unreadable, even to other academics, doesn’t enter the calculation.

The reality – and this is where the rock music lesson comes in – is that most people who can write competently know exactly what they are doing, and can also innovate. It’s part of the territory. What’s more, many have the same qualifications as the academics who diss them. I do, for instance. But I don’t work for a university – or see the need to validate myself in the narrow terms academics use to assert status to each other.

All of it comes down to the basic questions all authors must ask themselves before putting pen to paper (well, finger to keyboard, these days):

1. What is the purpose of this piece of writing?
2. Who is the audience?
3. Why will they want to read this particular piece?

Everything else follows – the pitch, the tone, and the content. Intellectual rigour applies, whichever way the ideas are expressed. And it seems to me that the widest audience won’t be the one that likes reading the word ‘discourse’ when ‘conversation’ means the same thing.

Hemingway summed it up. Why use the ‘ten dollar’ words when there are other and better words that do the same thing?

Quite right, too. And that, I think, is true of all writing whatever the subject or genre.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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My top five writing records…

It’s over 30 years since I started writing my first book for publication. It’s been a pretty wild ride at times.  The whole lot has been through the traditional system – and today I thought I’d share the top five ‘record events’.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

1. The most money someone wanted for a license fee on any project I’ve worked on.
Not for a book, but I had to include this because it’s so crazy. The copyright owners wanted to charge $15,110.39 for use of one cartoon from a 60-year old magazine. Ouch. I could have commissioned new artwork for less than ten percent of that. The idea of using it was promptly dropped.  I’m still not sure what the extra 39 cents was for.

2. The fastest rejection.
Nine minutes, from a university press. They also told me never to bother them again. Usually a publisher rejects work through inaction – they neither know, nor care about, the hopeful author. But this was so decisive and fast that I’d obviously tripped up over a prior decision about dealing with me. The weird part? I was a total stranger. I have a shrewd idea as to what was going on. But it worries me that people I don’t know, and have never had an argument with, nonetheless feel so strongly they feel able to act as judge, jury and executioner, behind my back, and in absence of my knowing they have an issue. It’s not how western morality is meant to work, though it’s consistent with the moral void I’ve discovered every time I try to deal professionally with New Zealand academics or their wannabe hangers on.

3. The longest running contract before publication.
In 2003 I signed a contract with Penguin to write a biography of Sir Donald McLean. Before I’d finished, a biography of the same guy appeared, the existence of which was previously unknown to me or to Penguin. We agreed to put mine on hold for a while until the dust settled. It’s being published in February 2015.

4. The most books I had published in one calendar year.
Five. Four new titles and one reprint with amendments. I didn’t write them in one hit, of course – publishers stack ‘em for specific release times, and books chase each others’ tails.

5. The most danger I’ve ever been in as a result of writing.
There was the time when I was doing my aviation journalism jag, and I found myself in a C-130 Hercules, punting along at about 200 feet on a low-alt exercise with the rear door open and a Toyota Hilux bouncing on its chains beside me. But that wasn’t actually dangerous.

No, the most danger I’ve been in was in Archives New Zealand reading room, when a military historian who I’d never met before saw me, crossed the room, and stood over me with balled fists and red face, demanding to know what I was doing. He was very, very angry. I thought I was going to be hit, and I think I would have been if I’d stood up. I’ve had people back me into a corner and spit at me, in libraries, but this one wins the prize. Why did it happen? See (2).

Could be worse, of course – at least I’m not John Lennon.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Posing the vital question: are writers also readers?

I have a question to put to you. I posted earlier this week on the books I read as a kid, which have stayed with me.

Spot my title in the middle...

Spot my title in the middle…

The reason a book ‘stays with you’ is because of its emotional impact at the time – and later. Now, that poses a question. You’d think that – as writers write – they’d draw a deeper emotional response from books and from reading than, perhaps, do people who just read. Flip sides of the same experience, but the writer’s deeper into it.

I wonder, though. It isn’t true for me. I find music offers the better experience, certainly in terms of engaging with it. Reading simply doesn’t engage me the same way.

But I write. I write a lot.

So I put it to you – does it follow that ‘writers’ must, by nature, draw their best emotional involvement from ‘reading’. Or is writing an expression of an emotional experience that writers draw, more fully, from all things – the world around them, life experiences, music and, in due place, their own reading? In the end, does it come down to individuals?

I draw distinction here between reading to reverse-engineer how it was done – to examine the way different authors approached their subjects and learn from it – with reading for pleasure. I’m asking about the latter – in short, are writers also readers?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Ego igitur puniar: my childhood adventures at Nelson Park School, Napier

My old primary school, Nelson Park School, is marking its centenary this weekend. Am I going to the various events? Go figure. My earliest memory there, from 1968, is of being slammed across the face by my teacher. Wham! I’d never been hit before. I was five.

Hi. I'm your teacher...

Hi. I’m your teacher…

I have no idea why the teacher hit me, but back then it didn’t take much to evoke the wrath of teachers. A friend of mine from Nelson Park School days, just this year, told me how he was punished for accidentally running into an ‘out of bounds’ area while trying to escape the school bullies. One of my wife’s colleagues, who I didn’t know as a kid – but who went to Nelson Park School at the same time – was punished for skipping for joy in jingly sandals, aged five. I am not joking.

This was the era when school had little to do with nurturing children to learn according to their strengths, and much to do with smashing them into submissive conformity to a prescribed and quiet ‘normal’, via petty army-style ‘bullshit’ routines, worth-denial, nit-picking, sarcasm and class-front humiliation, all backed with a relentless threat of pain.  I still remember the teacher who kept offering to take boys privately out the back where they would be ‘shown’ his personal ‘strap’ – the heavy leather belt with which teachers were allowed to beat children. Other staff didn’t ‘strap’ children in secret – I remember the teacher who used to whip his out and smash kids around the legs with it. The same teacher also prowled the class with a broken blackboard ruler he called his ‘Walking Whacker’. Wham! 

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969. Can you spot me? Clue: I'm the only one whose face hasn't fallen into a belt-sander.

My class at Nelson Park School in 1969, in regulation pose, including the substitute teacher. Can you spot me? Clue: I’m the only one who hasn’t face-planted into a belt-sander.

The doyen of childhood terror at that school was the deputy principal, an archetypal drill sergeant, who belted out orders and whose wrath fell on any kid that did not obey instantly to the letter. Think Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It’s a military technique. But instead of brow-beating adults so they’d walk into gunfire, this teacher used the method to traumatise children into submission. I heard that he even made kids go to the local dairy to buy him Alfino cigars.

Apparently some kids – and parents – admired this teacher for his ‘drill sergeant’ decisiveness, and apparently he had a ‘nice guy’ persona he used to switch on. But I never saw that side, and everyone was terrified of him. Just this year I discussed him with former pupils at Nelson Park School with me over forty years ago. The most complementary opinion was ‘he was an asshole‘. 

The school system in action, circa 1970...

The school system in action, circa 1970…

It took me years to understand my experience at Nelson Park School – I didn’t really get a handle on it until I researched the school system professionally, publishing my conclusions in 2004 and again in 2013. The problem was that the New Zealand primary school system of the late 1960s was well past its use-by date. It was built around early twentieth century notions of uniformity – a narrowly defined ‘right’ way of doing things; writing in a specific way with a specific hand, and so forth. Woe betide anybody who diverged. Practical human reality, of course, is far broader and more complex – the more so as time goes on and generational change brings new attitudes. But the school system hadn’t caught up, and by the time I got there it was dominated by teachers who had spent a lifetime bashing square pegs into round holes.

School routines clung to the pseudo-military ethos that had characterised the system through both World Wars, when school was looked on as a foundation for cadetship and territorial service. When I was there in 1968-72, children were still made to march into class, in lines, to the strains of marches such as F. J. Ricketts’ Colonel Bogey (1914). If the kids messed up that drill, they were marched into the school-ground and made to practise.

What made the whole thing so destructive was that this setup fostered opportunities for some staff to exploit the power the system gave them over those defined as powerless, the children. A recent – as in 2014 – review of data collected during a 1961 experiment by John Millward reveals that some ordinary adults become monsters in such circumstance because dominating those over whom the system has given them total power makes some people feel good about themselves. My own professional work suggests that one does not have to run an experiment to show this. It is part of the wider human condition. And moral compass, alas, is lost by increments.

Doubtless some kids had a good time at Nelson Park School at the turn of the 1970s. Nobody I knew there did, and my left-handedness ensured I also hit the sharp end of a tired system. The sad part is that the staff of Nelson Park School at that time had a choice. They could have tried to be reasonable, tried to view children as human beings and tried to nurture their development. By my measure, they did not. But perhaps these teachers found happiness for themselves later in better and more caring ways. One can but hope.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Kids books that have totally stuck with you

When you were a kid, did you ever find a book that, to this day, hasn’t gone away – that you could maybe read, years and years later, and still enjoy?

Here’s my list, all books I read up to the age of about 11-12. I’m not limiting it to a ‘top 10’ – in fact, some of the entries cover whole series of books. Justifiably.

  1. Arthur Ransome – the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series
  2. C S Lewis – the ‘Narnia’ series
  3. Robert A. Heinlein – all his ‘juveniles’ (Farmer in the Sky, The Rolling Stones, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, etc).
  4. Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle In Time
  5. Tove Jansson – Finn Family Moomintroll
  6. J R R Tolkien – The Hobbit
  7. J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
  8. Nicholas Fisk – Space Hostages
  9. Norman Hunter – the whole Professor Branestawm series (my copies of the first three were autographed by the author himself, who came to my parents’ house in 1970).
  10. Arthur C. Clarke – Islands in the Sky (my main entree to Clarke, a YA-pitched showcase for his comsat future, and the first appearance of the ‘broomstick’ he also used 50 years later in 2010: Odyssey Two).
  11. Andre Norton – Plague Ship.

Care to share your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014