How I went into single combat on TV, intellectually speaking, with Antony Beevor

It’s a decade since I took on Anthony Beevor on TV, over his comments about Bernard Freyberg and his role in losing the 1941 Battle for Crete.

Wright - Battle for Crete - 200 pxI wasn’t able to get a face-to-face interview, but I was able to appear on Mike Hosking’s Sunday show in riposte to remarks Beevor made on the same show a week earlier.

The battle for Crete remains one of New Zealand’s legendary military near-misses, a battle lost by a hairs-breadth – keying into the national inferiority complex by which New Zealand was always able to punch above its weight on the world stage, but always just managed to miss the grand prize. This mind-set does much to explain the soul-searching that followed the evacuation – and the arguments that raged after the war, in the pages of history books, usually over who to hold responsible.

The fault has been levelled variously at the New Zealand brigadier running the defence of Maleme airfield, at the battalion commander on the airfield, and on the New Zealand commander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg, in charge of island defence. In 1991, Antony Beevor excoriated Freyberg, considering he had misread an intelligence signal and so lost the island. It was, at best, specious – Freyberg actually did a tremendous job, and battles don’t pivot on a single signal. Beevor also never used the primary documentation available in New Zealand.

near_runI first looked into the battle for Crete in 1999, when my publishers, Reed New Zealand, asked me to write a history of those dramatic days. They specified a short book for the general audience – not the specialist academic military-historical community – and with a maximum length of 30,000 words the text was, deliberately, intended as a brief account.

crete2I called the book A Near-Run Affair: New Zealanders in the Battle for Crete, riffing on Arthur Wellesley’s quip after Waterloo. The book sold very well into its intended audience, and was acclaimed by independent reviewers.

In 2003, Reed reissued the book with revised title – Battle for Crete: New Zealand’s Near-Run Affair. This edition also sold well.

Battle for Crete became the first volume in a trilogy I wrote covering the Second New Zealand Division from their first battles in Greece to the dramatic dash to Trieste in the closing days of the war – the other two are Desert Duel and Italian Odyssey. I did talk with Penguin about releasing them as an omnibus seven or eight years ago, but that came to nothing.

Now, all three are being reissued by Intruder Books, starting with Battle for Crete, which has been revised and is in its third incarnation. Not too shabby for any author.

The book’s out with an introductory price for $US 3.99. Get it now.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

This week’s mega short-story challenge

This week’s writing challenge revolves around a photo I took of this oyster-catcher looking for its lunch on a mussel-covered rock.

Use the photo to inspire a 150-200 word super-short story – a proper one, with beginning, middle, end and punchline (all super-short stories gotta have a punchline) – and post it on your blog, with the prompt photo and a link back to this blog for others to pick up and join in the fun. of course the story can be about anything, but please keep it seemly!

Ex-dinosaur out to lunch...

Ex-dinosaur out to lunch…

According to the current theory, all dinosaurs didn’t go extinct 65 million years ago. The surviving branch of their family are still with us today, and we usually serve the domesticated variety deep fried with secret spices. Inspiring? Possibly. But also a little scary.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Deep magic from the dawn of humanity: the real appeal of Tolkien

In the past few posts I’ve been explaining why Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings struck such chords with the western world, despite breaking all the rules of the twentieth century novel.

We’ve seen how, on one level, it ‘broke through’ a decade after being published, on the back of the way the counter-culture identified with the pastoral aspects of hobbit life. But there was something more going on – something that Tolkien very deliberately wrote into his whole imaginarium, which struck to the heart of the human condition, and to western cultural tradition – and this is what made his work so epic.

Weta's 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Gandalf: 85 percent Odin, 15 percent Merlin. This is Weta Workshop’s 10-metre high Gandalf above the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, Wellington.

Tolkien – a philologist, expert linguist and academic par excellence – didn’t just want to write a fantasy story. He had in mind something bigger, one around which his imaginarium was organised. A mythology. England didn’t have one in the same way the Norse had, or the Germans – so he went out to write it, drawing on those traditions to create something new.

When it came to the novel based on that imaginarium – well, this had to be part of the tradition of epic literature, like Beowulf. It was this that gave LOTR – and the whole Middle Earth mythos – such fundamental power, and allowed Tolkien’s creation to capture the imagination of a very wide range of people in western culture, across generations.

Heroic literature demands a very different organising principle than what is required for an everyday novel. And The Lord Of The Rings is built around it, with its plot-points involving temptation, heroism, sacrifice – and a relentless testing of the characters by the dark forces swirling around them. In this sense, characters such as Aragorn – who, by twentieth century novel values was a cliché – were, in fact, spot on. Necessary.

The Lord Of The Rings, in short, was the literary equivalent of a Wagnerian opera: huge, suffused with vast themes of good versus evil, reaching directly to the heart of the human condition and displaying it on a mighty canvas that revealed just how vast an imagination Tolkien had. And, like Wagner, Tolkien made sure those themes gained credibility through depth – pushing a vast cultural tapestry and back-story into his work, knowing it interrupted the plot in twentieth century terms – but also knowing that it gave the mythic theme vastly more power.

The comparison is direct: Wagner’s stories drew from Norse/Germanic mythic tradition to produce stories of epic quests for rings, filled with jealousies over the power they gave, temptation, and greed. Tolkien drew from that same mythic tradition to build his own imaginarium. The difference was that whereas Wagner steeped his tales in blatant Germanic nationalism, Tolkien imbued his with a quiet, subtle and quintessential Englishness – something that shone through at every level, but particularly with his hobbits.

It is here, I think, that the second aspect of Tolkien’s genius shone through. The hobbits were everyman; they were ordinary, familiar, likeable characters that everybody could identify with. By making Hobbits the centre of the narrative, Tolkien gave LOTR the means to connect with the twentieth century reader – at first, as we saw in a previous post, the ‘hippie’ generation; then a much wider swathe of western readers. Blend that with the deep mythology he was producing and the result was irresistible – once it had been discovered.

As we saw in previous posts, LOTR didn’t sell well in its first decade. That changed as soon as it was discovered by an eager market. And that issue – discovery – is still with us today. But that is entirely another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Is the APA’s ‘internet gaming disorder’ really a fair label for ordinary gamers?

The American Psychiatric Association recently called for study into a condition they call ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’. My gripe? However much it’s been intellectualised, ‘psychiatry’ is not a science because its diagnoses depend on personal opinion, not on testable (technically, ‘falsifiable’) empirical criteria. Where somebody is obviously in trouble, that’s not a problem. But for normal people who end up labelled ‘faulty’ because their behaviour appears to match whatever society’s latest transient panic happens to be, it is.

Screen shot from Id's classic 1992 shooter Wolfenstein 3D. Which wasnt, actually, in 3D, but hey...

Trust me, I’m a psychologist…

That’s the issue. There are often genuine reasons to be concerned. But social panics are also triggered by nothing more than reaction to change. And all I can see is that the ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ scale will be turned into yet another intellectualised device for social control by which ‘psychiatrists’ validate their own sense of self-worth at the expense of normal people, this time targeting the behaviour of a generation who spend their time interacting with each other on screen instead of face to face.

Don’t forget, it’s only forty years since the APA tried to classify ‘introversion’ as a disorder.

You can imagine what would have happened if they’d succeeded. Suddenly, introverts – who we know today are a normal part of the human spectrum – would have been told their basic nature was a clinical abnormality. Then they’d be ‘cured’ by relentless assaults on their self-worth and by being forced to spend as much time as possible trying to engage with large groups of people and then told how faulty they were for not coping. After all, it’s ‘normal’ to get energy from socialising in large groups, so just go out and do it, and learn how to make yourself a ‘normal’ person, and it’s your fault if you fail, because it proves you didn’t try hard enough and are personally worthless.

Obviously there are genuine psychiatric illnesses – which are diagnosable and treatable – but I can’t help thinking that others are defined by pop-social criteria, given gloss by the unerring ability humanity has to intellectualise itself into fantasy. This was certainly true in the early-mid twentieth century, when ‘psychology’ emerged from a specific German intellectual sub-culture, as a reaction to the pop-social sexual mores of the day. This emerging pseudo-science, styling itself a true science (but not, because of the failure to meet falsifiability criteria), keyed into a period mind-set that sought to reduce a multi-shaded universe – including the human condition – to arbitrary and polarised categories.

The key false-premise that gave ‘psychology’ its power was the supposition that everybody – with the exception of the ‘psychologist’ – was ‘psychologically defective’. Neurotic. This was never questioned. When fed into period conformity to social imperatives, it meant that ‘psychology’ was less a tool for discoveries about the human condition as a means for bullying normal people who didn’t exactly meet narrow and often artificially (socially transiently) defined behaviours. That spoke more about the nature of period society and the personal insecurities of the ‘psychologists’ than about human reality.1195428087807981914johnny_automatic_card_trick_svg_med

The concept of ‘psychiatry’ emerged, in part, from the union of this pseudo-scientific illusion with medicine; and I am not sure things have changed today – for instance, one available diagnosis today is “ODD” (Oppositional Defiance Disorder), which is an obvious label with which a ‘psychologist’ can invalidate the last-ditch defence of someone who’s come to them for help and doesn’t submit to their ego and power.

What of the idea that ‘Internet Gaming Disorder’ is worth investigating? In a social sense internet gaming is a specialised framework for interaction – a way in which people, often on different sides of the world, associate with each other. The framework is very specific, and mediated by computer.

To me this is a key issue, because I suspect a lot of gamers are also introverts; and the computer enables them to interact with others without losing energy. Gaming also frames a specific sub-culture. Those in it respect the status of achievement within those terms. The computer enables them to interact, and to validate that particular interaction with people they respect. Of course this doesn’t describe the whole life, personalities or social interactions of people who happen to spend time gaming; but validation in various ways is one of the drivers of the human condition; and another is the desire of strangers to validate themselves by taking that away – bullying, which (alas) I think is probably also innate.

That’s why I have alarm bells going when I find the APA trying to call computer gaming a disorder.

Obviously gamers cover a wide spectrum, and no doubt a proportion who focus on it will do it excessively, for various reasons – perhaps including trying to get away from being bullied. But in the main, I suspect life is well in hand and gaming is simply a way of socialising via an abstract medium. The problem I have is that the APA’s question risks all gamers being swept up in a catch-all label of ‘disorder’, just like ‘introverts’ nearly were forty years ago, along with left-handers and anybody else who didn’t conform to ‘psychologically’ normal.

I should add – I don’t game. I would, if I had the time, the co-ordination skills – and an internet service that had a competitive ping-time. I don’t. But in any event, that’s not the issue I’m concerned with today.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Beyond epic – how Tolkien broke the rules and wrote a winner

I’ve been posting about why J R R Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings broke all the rules – yet, ten years after publication, took off commercially to become a defining icon of twentieth century fantasy literature.

Rohan. No - central Otago. No, Rohan...oh, I give up...

Rohan. No – central Otago. No, Rohan…oh, I give up…

As a huge Tolkien fan who used to read The Lord Of The Rings multiple times a year, as a kid, I can see the appeal. And yet the fact remains that Tolkien broke the rules of plot, structure and literature. So what was happening? Why did the book take off?

I think a large part of it came about because – partly by coincidence – Tolkien’s themes and setting meshed with the values of the counter-culture that rose during the mid-1960s, and in general with the values of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. It was this meshing that gave the book such impetus and appeal to a new – and very large – generation.

Tolkien himself apparently declared the fandom and much of the hippie sub-culture enthusiasm for his work a ‘deplorable cultus’. Still, the reasons for that meshing seem clear enough. Tolkien’s Shire imagery and culture – with its deliberate evocation of a lost English rural paradise – keyed closely with counter-culture fantasies of a lost and spiritually superior pre-industrial world, largely because the origins of both philosophies were much the same; Tolkien echoed the Arts and Crafts movement, which had pursued much the same thinking in the nineteenth century. He also wrote jokes into his hobbit world that were lost on others – apparently Hobbiton society was a specific satire on Midlands village life from the 1890s.

Still, the broader themes of a ‘lost Merrie England’ coincided with counter-culture priorities. Add to this Tom Bombadil, to Tolkien a faerie sprite; but to the hippies an archetypal drop-out (nicely lampooned in Bored Of The Rings as ‘Tim Benzedrine’), and the groundwork was set.

This was not the only appeal The Lord Of The Rings had. Tolkien deliberately set out to present a clear morality: good versus evil. There was little that was complex about this world – few shades of grey. People were good; they were tempted; they fell.  Evil often appeared as good, as a device for deceit. His world also portrayed many of the trappings of industrial society – the pollution, the scale – as dark, aligning it with evil in ways that had immediate appeal to a generation who were trying to shuck off the legacy of the world-engulfing wars that had dominated the first half of the twentieth century.

Tolkien had drawn much of this implicit anti-war, anti-industry sentiment from his First World War experience – reflecting the ‘war poets’ of the 1920s – but it was appropriated by a new generation in a new context. And everything took off from there. The appeal broadened as time went on; the book enviegled itself into mainstream culture – becoming, along with Star Trek and Star Wars, one of the vehicles by which fantasy and science fiction were mainstreamed. There was no looking back after that.

Which brings me to the next part of this series – why, despite all the rule-breaking, The Lord Of The Rings was such a wonderful, fantastic and utterly amazing work. Why it was, in fact, a structural work of genius – and why has such genuine and timeless appeal. Next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

OK so what does ‘Kindle Unlimited’ author payment by the page really mean?

I’m not sure yet what to think of the Amazon plan to pay authors enrolled in their Kindle Unlimited programme on a page-basis. This system doesn’t replace the sale model –it runs alongside it and makes books available for Kindle readers, free. Amazon pays authors instead from an undefined ‘pool’.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

This latest amendment simply changes the method of payment from a “10 percent” threshold to a “pages read” measure, in which Amazon defines the page length.

That concept of paying authors ‘compensation’ for royalties lost when books are provided free isn’t original to Amazon. A number of governments – including New Zealand’s – run schemes to provide compensatory royalties to authors that have been otherwise lost via public library borrowing. But it’s not defined on a ‘pages read’ basis.

I can’t help thinking that one outcome of the Amazon initiative will be a reduction of literature to a relentless succession of eight-word advertising jingles and characters dangling off cliffs because, in the author’s mind, they HAVE to get the reader to turn that next page so they’ll get another one half of one cent or whatever it is the Amazon ‘pool’ devolves.

I don’t like the idea that authors who want to join that scheme also have to be ‘exclusive’ to Amazon. That’s not original to Amazon either – I’ve written books that way for a major book chain in the past. But I made sure I was properly paid for it – a defined, up-front figure which I negotiated. It wasn’t dependent on sales. And nor should it be; a shop wanting to be the sole stockist of a particular item should be prepared to buy that monopoly. The difference with the Amazon scheme is that the return is undefined, and to me that’s wrong.

The other objection I have is that in order to pay authors by page, Amazon need to know which pages their customers have read. And they do, because Kindle phones home. A lot. This, my friends, is the age of Big Data and Big Intrusion into ordinary things we do. And on one level, who really cares if Amazon know what, how much, and when you’re reading, and on what device? But the collection of this little bit of trivia, or that, by a variety of service providers, has been normalised in all our dealings with the information age. We don’t know – can’t know – where that might go in a couple of generations. The risk is that the future dystopia we face isn’t George Orwell’s, it’s Aldous Huxley’s. The worry is that it will then become Orwell’s.

It’s not clear to me, yet, where this is heading for authors and readers. I think schemes such as Kindle Unlimited are symptomatic of the fact that we’re in the early days of a revolution in the way books are published and sold. It’s riding on the back of a bigger general change driven by the information revolution, which I think – certainly sociologically – will be in the same league as the industrial revolution 250 years ago.

Amazon are leading the pack at the moment, as far as books are concerned. But the more important outcome, I think, isn’t so much which company dominates as the systems and expectations that flow from the way that information revolution is applied to reading and writing.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

‘Battle for Crete': cover reveal!

My book Battle for Crete: New Zealand’s Near-Run Affair, a brief history of New Zealand’s close-run defeat on Crete in 1941, is being republished as part of a new military series by Intruder Books. It’s the third time this title’s been released – and this time you’ll be able to get it instantly, on Kindle. Here’s the cover.

Wright - Battle for Crete - 450 px I really like this. To me, it echoes the colour tonings and style of the 1940s – but with a modern twist.

I wrote this book in 1999, and it was published in 2000 by Reed NZ Ltd under the title A Near-Run Affair. Reed republished it in 2003 with a new title, which has been retained for the mildly revised Intruder Books edition. This new edition is available at an introductory price of $US 3.99 and marks the first time it’s been available in over a decade. It follows Intruder’s re-issue of three earlier titles in my military history series. Don’t forget to check ’em out – here. If you haven’t got a Kindle, you can get a Kindle reader for whatever device you own, here.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015