Another counterblast to tobacco

As I enter Grumpy Old Man territory (a tad over 30, and I’m sticking to that) I find myself less and less tolerant of people who smoke around me.

James I of England, portrait by Daniel Myrtens, 1621. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

James I of England, portrait by Daniel Myrtens, 1621. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

I’ve never smoked. it’s a horrible habit. What’s more, it inflicts itself on other people whether they like it or not, and I don’t see why I need to put up with it. If people want to succumb to their nicotine addiction and kill themselves slowly with some really nasty carcinogens, that’s up to them – but I’d rather they didn’t spew those carcinogens out around me.

I’m not alone. Back in the early 1600s, King James I of England penned a tirade about the latest import from the Americas – tobacco. Smoking had become all the rage in his court, and he hated it. Smoking, he insisted, was a ‘stinking suffumigation’. And this, what’s more, came at a time when attitudes to personal hygiene were split. Everybody said you needed baths. King James said you didn’t. The real question in his court was who might be suffumigated first. But he was King. His ‘Counterblaste to Tobacco’ was one of the first anti-smoking tracts. And it wasn’t the last.

The New Zealand government passed laws forbidding smoking in public places in 2003. A lot of offices have followed suit, with the result that central city shop doorways are usually filled with people loitering in choking clouds of cigarette smoke. Or they light up and wander off down the street, leaving non-smokers behind them to choke in the trail. Certainly in central Wellington, the foot traffic is dense enough to make it very difficult to get past them.

It’s pretty inconsiderate as far as I am concerned. I don’t spit in their faces. Why are they spitting smoke into mine? Grrrr…

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Inspirations: I have seen the sign, and it is funny

It’s a funny old world, if you look at it. Last weekend my wife and I found this in a café:


Meanwhile my brother-in-law found this on a freeway while visiting Pittsburgh, and remarked: ‘I guess if it’s an emergency, it’s an emergency…’Emergency Pull Off

Then there’s the sign I found in Napier, New Zealand – a significant gauge of the sign-writer’s abilities. Gauge. I did say ‘gauge’, didn’t I.

Wright_Model Railway Gauge

Not to mention grocer’s apostrophes  in Wellington (took these with my iPAQ, a Hewlett Packard PDA that used the i prefix before Apple did…but isn’t in the league of my SLR):



Have you seen any funny signs around lately?

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Writing inspirations: the Sydney writers’ walk

Last time I was in Sydney I made a point of tracing the Sydney Writers’ Walk – a series of plaques set into the paving around Circular Quay.

It’s different from the Wellington writers’ walk. The Wellington walk celebrates local New Zealand writers. In Sydney the flavour is more international – though most have connections to Australia.

To me these plaques and memories of writers are incongruous; here, amidst the bustle of the ferries as they bustle in and out of the wharves, the rush of city-clad commuters, rattle of trains and to-and-fro of tourists and passers-by. The harbour bridge relentlessly frames the view from every angle, vast, fading into the haze of North Sydney, a monument to 1930s engineering and the ambitions of a nation that saw itself as more than just a subservient child of Empire. On the other side stands Opera House with its sea-shell roofline.

Tens of thousands of commuters stroll back and across these names daily, perhaps unaware of the legacies these writers left and – in some cases – are still giving us. There are plaques to Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, Robert Hughes, Thea Astley and Jack London, among others. It was another moment to walk, to ponder, to think about the way that writers change our lives. And to think about how these writers were, themselves, inspired.

For me, as a historian and New Zealander as well as a writer, this walk is inspiring on so many levels. Not least because Circular Quay and the old district of Sydney around it is the place where New Zealand’s history also began. Have you ever walked Circular Quay? Or wanted to see this part of Sydney, if you haven’t been there? Is there a city-scape that inspires you, in its own way? Do share – I’d love to hear from you!

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Writing inspirations: the Wellington writers’ walk

Take a stroll around the waterfront in Wellington, New Zealand, and it’s not hard for writers to find inspiration. On any sunny weekend this two-kilometre stretch of wharf and water frontage, backed by the national museum, boating harbours and the high-rises of Wellington city, buzzes with people.

Every one of them has their own story, and it’s fun to sit down at the gelato shop, watch, and imagine. Why is that woman jogging with a pram? Is she trying to get fit – or just in a hurry? There are schoolkids, leaping with laughing abandon from the wharf-to splash into deep water below. It’s a major drop. Do they do it for a dare? For bragging rights? Or just because it’s summer, and they are young, and it is hot.

Elsewhere a busker wails over his battery PA system. His voice sounds like he is singing from the bottom of a drain. Does he do it for income, or because he likes singing? Nobody pays him any attention. Maybe he likes annoying people.

Stories flow around this place; real stories, imaginary stories. Inspiring stories. Cool stories, and, I am sure, sad stories. It is a place for inspiration. And the gem – for me at least – remains the writers’ walk. Quotes from nearly twenty of New Zealand’s best known authors are scattered with seemingly joyous abandon across nearly a kilometre of waterfront. The concrete plaques peek, coyly, from gardens; they nestle in shadowy corners of wharves. And they rest where the sea laps across them.

The wisdom of their words – the frozen thoughts of authors whose corporeal forms, in many cases, are now dust – speaks to us across the years. Their insights remain timeless.

Later, I’ll post some of the more interesting ones in detail.

Right now, I’d like to know more about you – do you have a place like this that inspires you? Or somewhere very different, that is personal to your style? Where you can go to find inspiration, people and – oh yes, gelato.

 Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Hemingway’s top style tips

Ernest Hemingway helped pioneer the literary styles of the twentieth century; sparse, clean – honest. Real. He helped set writing on the direction it has taken since. Which is why we need to listen to his lessons. Luckily for us he talked – he talked about a lot of things, including writing. It was an emotional exercise for him. But so it should be. For all of us.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

How important was Hemingway? Even Jack Kerouac – one of my favourite authors – extended the direction Hemingway and a few others of his ilk started, nearly a century ago. Authentic focus on human emotion – not the details of the room the characters sit in or even what they do in it, except as a window to the truth of their human reality. And many of his comments have survived – perhaps out of context, even reduced to aphorisms, but apt and important nonetheless. Here are a few of my favourites – with what I understand them to mean:

 “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing.”
Probably the oldest lesson rammed at novice writers – show, don’t tell. There is actually a case, every so often, to tell; but not that often. How do you ‘show’, rather than telling? I’ll detail that in another post – but in a nutshell, it’s about how the character sees things; their reactions to events, not the events themselves.

“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
Structure, structure, structure! Structure counts – florid descriptions don’t. They did once, but that was in the eighteenth century – and Hemingway was reacting. You should too.

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”
Writing should have a freshness, and there is only one way to get it. Stepping back; getting abstracted from it – from every part of it, including the words that make up the mechanics of written prose.

“If a writer stops observing he is finished. Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed.”
Again, it’s to do with the reaction of the character to what they see, not lists of what is around them. You can paint pictures of character – as Hemingway did – by viewing things through their eyes. But to do that an author has first to know all those details themselves. Including the way that characters process them through the lens of their own persona.

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”
Plain vanilla English is best. It carries absolute clarity, and it isn’t pretentious. Why say ‘discourse’ when you mean ‘talk’?

These rules still hold good today – more so, in fact. The human condition has not changed (talk to me about that – it’s a whole book of itself and I’d love to discuss it). Styles have – if anything, prose has become sparser. Technology has shifted the ball game fron Hemingway’s day. But it hasn’t changed the focus of writing; the onus is on writers – professionally published, self-published, indie, or aspiring – to push quality. Like Hemingway.

Do you have any thoughts on Hemingway? A favourite book of his? Or some thoughts you’d like to share about his lessons? Talk to me!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

OMG a century old? That’s old hat!

New Zealand’s main online news site reported on the weekend that “OMG” – “Oh! My God” was invented 95 years ago. Old hat, I’m afraid. I reported it on this blog last year.

According to the OED, OMG was coined in 1917 by Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher – Lord Fisher, First Baron of Kilverstone – in a letter to Winston Churchill.

Fisher published the letter in his iconoclastic autobiography Memories. I have a copy of the 1919 edition. Here’s my photo of the page.

First use of OMG! Part of p78 from Fisher’s ‘Memories’ (Hodder & Stoughton, 1919).

Fisher was the enfant terrible of the Royal Navy, the man who dragged the service, kicking and screaming, into the twentieth century. They didn’t call it ‘the fleet that Jack built’ for nothing. He invented the battlecruiser, though perhaps not the dreadnought.  He chaired the committee that invented ASDIC (Sonar).  In 1917 he was involved in the dramatic capture of a spy, spotted by his neighbour Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (that Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon).

Genius came at a price; Fisher was combatative, volcanic, prone to pursuing feuds beyond the point of sense. His time as First Sea Lord from 1904 to 1910 was one of the most divisive in the Navy’s history. He was recalled in 1914, aged 73; but only lasted eight months. His game of power-brinksmanship over the Gallipoli campaign triggered  the collapse of the Asquith government; but Fisher’s own career fell casualty along the way.

A volcanic figure. A man who considered himself Britain’s second Nelson – even down to getting a Lady Hamilton of his own. A man whose extraordinary, creative and controversial life is best summed up in three letters – ‘OMG’.

Not too surprising, then, that Fisher also coined it.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

‘Obamacare’ and the healthy uses of applied Christianity

It will be interesting to see what happens to ‘Obamacare’ in the US, recently upheld by court order, and the closest US citizens have come to the universal state funded health care common in other western nations.

Here in New Zealand, we have had universal state-funded health care since 1938. It was part of a package of social welfare initiatives introduced that year by the Labour government of Michael Joseph Savage. There was a storm of protest from opposition parties; but the morality, as far as Savage and his cabinet were concerned, was clear. He summed it up in two words during parliamentary debate – ‘applied Christianity’

Michael Joseph Savage

The 1938 Social Security Act offered support for those dispossessed through no fault of their own. It joined an effort to house people and public works schemes that provided employment and infrastructure for a nation.

This was not to create lifestyle choices for the lazy. The problem, back then, was that New Zealand had been prostrated by war, depression and penury; and for a people whose morale had been pulverised by a generation of misfortune, the new face of government in the form of Savage – kind, avuncular, caring – was a gift from heaven.  Savage and his cabinet were not going to let the people suffer when government had the means to help them get back on their feet.  He was determined to get his 1938 welfare legislation through, even deferring life-saving surgery for himself that year to make sure it happened. There were reasons why Savage’s portrait hung on the wall in many households alongside that of Christ. When Savage died in early 1940, the nation went into mourning.

New Zealand has had universal public health care – tweaked and re-jigged, but broadly there – ever since. The only serious effort to dislodge it came in 1992 when the Finance Minister of the day issued what she called the ‘Mother of all Budgets’. Among its provisions was a charge against patients for use of public hospitals. This was presented as ‘partial cost recovery’, which did nothing to allay the popular impression of a punitive state skewering sick people a second time if they used the service they had already paid for via tax.

The lesson was clear. To New Zealanders, universal health-care was a right. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012