Even some atheists are prone to giving religion credit for producing great art as a happy byproduct of its dangerous and deluded superstitions. Such arguments always remind me of the first line in Act 2 of Tomfoolery, a musical in which I once appeared as the non-singing narrator:
- World War II produced many great songs, but it was not primarily a musical
Of all the lines I stumbled on and over during my short and unspectacular career in amateur theatre, this was my favourite. Even with the sober midweek audiences, it never failed to get a laugh and, with it, a perfectly timed shot of adrenaline (if the first joke of Act 2 flops, it is bound to be a long night — for all involved).
Back to my original point: great art came out of religious faith and it would be churlish for even non-believers to deny it…so goes the theory at least.
As I write this, I am at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, my favourite of all the city’s many fine cultural institutions. As I wander around, I am struck again by the repetitive nature of religious imagery on display here, especially in exhibits of any century up to and including about the 17th.
This seems to be such a waste of artistic talent for one thing — imagine if all those artists felt able to produce original work instead of endless covers of the same song.
It is even a greater shame when you consider the extent to which this constricted artistic menu has affected our capacity to understand the past. Artists provide a unique window into life in past centuries in the absence of photographic or other records. And yet, most of the artistic record is completely useless except in telling us that people were (a) quite religious and (b) convinced that Jesus and family were Scandanavian.
Former NZ government ministers, even the disgraced ones, are not known for writing best-sellers. Richard Prebble shifted a few copies of I’ve Been Thinking some years back, but it wasn’t really a memoir in the traditional sense; it was more of a well-aimed polemic capitalising on the knowledge that the Ayn Rand set may be small in number but they buy a lot of books. (This is because only bound, self-contained volumes lend credence to ideas unable to withstand even the faintest waft of reality).
Michael Bassett has sold a book or two, and so has Geoffrey Palmer, but the former’s day job is historian and author and the latter is an overbearing windbag with claims to all kinds of specialist expertise (he was also, briefly, albeit not briefly enough, PM).
But these are the exceptions that prove the rule: discarded NZ politicians have all the book-selling prowess of provincial cricketers who make a handful of performances for the the national side thanks to a combination of poor selection and serendipitous injuries to more talented players. You know who I’m talking about, Chris Kuggeleijn.
Disgraced Labour MP, Chris Carter, is apparently threatening to write a tell-all book that he hopes will buck this trend. I can see why Carter would like to write such a book — it is 300 uninterrupted pages where he gets to defend himself while badmouthing his enemies — but I defy you to find a single living human being who could summon the energy to read a single page of it. I suspect even an autistic savant who could theoretically read such a book in under three minutes would rather spend the time watching ads between Two and Half Men re-runs.
When I knew Chris, we got along quite well on a personal level. It was always problematic for him to be seen with me because of my outsized reputation in the mid-late nineties (and again these days, I am told) as possessing in Labour circles something akin to the mark of Satan. While I liked him personally, there is no point denying that Chris is an intellectual light-weight and a craven opportunist — but he is far from Robinson Crusoe in this respect. The same criticism could be leveled without fear of contradiction at all but a very small handful of his colleagues in every corner of the Parliamentary chamber.
I have been flummoxed by Carter’s conduct of late because he never seemed especially venal or unstable, at least not in my presence. How could this happen? What or who is to blame?
To resolve this mild bout of cognitive dissonance, I have concluded that Chris Carter is the product of a bad environment and thus we can chalk this case up for Nurture in its never-ending tug-of-war with Nature. There is nothing inherently defective about Carter as a person. However, events in his formative years as an MP set him on this destructive course. Let me explain.
Chris Carter arrived as MP for Te Atatu at the height (or in the depths) of the ethical reign of Jonathan Hunt, former Labour Minister, whip and speaker. Since the seventies, Hunt had been the unrivalled godfather of NZ Labour parliamentary standards and numero uno at the porcine trough. It is under Hunt’s watchful eye that fresh Parliamentary recruits like Carter were inducted into a culture of entitlement maximisation and ethical boundary-riding. Hunt has never had a policy thought in his life, and finds them unbecoming in others. For him and his acolytes, a career in Parliament is a prolonged treasure hunt — and the objective is to find new and elaborate ways to uncover and exploit taxpayer-funded goodies: trips and freebies, loopholes and largesse. I have no doubt this disgusted Helen Clark — who is nothing if not ruthlessly ethical — but Hunt’s utility as a skilled inside player, prolific gossip and unnaturally gifted toady outweighed the downside enough to earn her forbearance and patronage.
Chris Carter spent too many years under Hunt’s wing. There were too many evenings in whatever exquisitely appointed office Hunt occupied at the time; too many well-blended G&Ts raised to toast Hunt’s hospitality during his nightly 6 o’clock news viewing parties. Carter, it seems clear, learned far too well the unseemly ethos to be had there.
Perhaps then it should not surprise anyone that the sense of entitlement eventually grew in Carter to the grotesque proportions we witness today. Perhaps the surprise is that more of his colleagues haven’t followed him into the abyss.
This is a recollection of my four sober years, previously published in three parts.
You will notice in the clip below that I am introduced first as “a controversial former member of the Labour Party in Mana” and then as the author of a “controversial blog”. What on earth have I done to deserve the use of the c-word twice in a matter of seconds? The doubling up of certain adjectives can be troubling. Take the phrase “fascinating guy”, for example. Used once, it is straight-forward, as in:
That Stephen Fry is a fascinating guy
Double up and you end up with:
That Stephen Fry is such a fascinating guy, with a fascinating past.
This makes you think that there is something a bit strange about Stephen Fry, or that person ostensibly praising him is either being a little sarcastic or trying to convey a hidden meaning.
Or take this:
Richie McCaw is a very clever rugby player.
We can all applaud such an insight, but how about:
Richie McCaw is very clever on the field. Very clever indeed.
This is now a sledge, a roundabout way of calling McCaw a cheat.
I would have been happy with one use of controversial — to be honest, I think it is fair given my central role in the failed 1996 coup attempt against then Labour leader and now-icon-of-the-international-left, Helen Clark. And, after all, it’s lot better than the opposite: I have no interest in being an uncontroversial former staffer who write uncontroversial blog posts But two controversials — in precisely ten seconds? That conveys more than just a little disputatiousness on my part.
If you’re intersted in the whole story from TV3’s “The Battle for Mana”, here it is.
Addiction perplexes and intrigues me. There are obvious personal reasons for this — I was addicted to alcohol for around ten years until October 2, 2006 — and I find the whole subject an enticing and elusive intellectual puzzle. The origins and causes of addiction are essentially a mystery and its treatments are notoriously random and sporadically effective at best. The medical profession, who are enamored with certainty, have all but outsourced its management to a non-existent god in the form of 12-step programs that, according to screeds of research, are either marginally effective or not effective at all.
My own experience with Alcoholics Anonymous persuaded me it is the world’s most elaborate placebo trial: if you believe hard enough, it may just work. Certainly, the “success stories” of AA are typically people with a certain cultish vibe, right down to the chanting of prayers and platitudes…”one day at a time”, “the elevator to sobriety is broken, take the steps!”, “Seven missed meetings makes one weak!”. The over-reliance on exclamation marks, and the non-ironic reveling in word-play, were early signs that I would not be an AA “lifer”.
At the heart of AA-world is the anthropomorphication of alcohol. AA members characterize booze as a nemesis with human, and inhumane, qualities. Grog itself — the actual liquid in the glass — is evil, pernicious, endlessly capable of plotting. It is out to get you! In most AA meeting soliloquies, the word alcohol could be replaced with the name of an abusive parent or partner without losing anything in coherence.
This is not to say I am anti-AA. For the first 3-6 months after I downed my last drink, it helped me. More than anything, it gave me something to do with the relentless hours and days of early sobriety. Also, I put together a confessional spiel — “Hi, I’m Phil and I’m an alcoholic”, “Hi, Phil!!!” — that proved quite popular among the AA faithful and gave me a timely ego boost ever time I delivered it (which was at every meeting; I was fresh meat and the throng couldn’t wait to hear what depths of depravity I had reached).
AA soon lost its appeal for me, but it undeniably works well for some people. It provides a supportive network of relatively non-judgmental and like-minded souls, and regular meetings certainly act as a buffer between the tenuously sober and relapse. But I could never shake the nagging feeling that the whole exercise was kind of missing the point.
From my experience, I felt that alcohol was a means to intoxication, and intoxication was a ticket out of reality, and reality was shit. The shiteousness of reality, therefore, struck me as main game.
For a booze-hound, as long as the calculation remains that being drunk — with all its dreary and dreadful personal costs — is preferable to being sober, then all the AA meetings in the world won’t keep you on the wagon. This assessment misses one obvious element — namely, that drinking (or drugging) to “self-medicate” actually makes the original condition worse, creating a misery spiral. I hate my life — I drink – my life gets even worse — I drink more — and so on.
The alcoholic keeps drinking — the exaggerated and easily treatable physiological dependence aside — because the hypothetical notion of a contented sober life is fantastical. If they were happy sober, they wouldn’t have ended up drunk.
At best, then, AA is a form of cognitive behaviour therapy — symptom treatment — and that’s not nothing. It is certainly better for a miserable drunk to be simply miserable, just as it is a good idea to train anorexics how to eat properly, or the obsessively hygienic to cease their irritating compulsions. But it leaves the black box — the reason we drank to begin with — untouched and, as long as that is case, the prospect of either relapse or the emergence of new symptoms seems inevitable to me. Never met an edgy, intense, chain-smoking, instant-coffee swilling, sex-obsessed recovering boozer? Find a church hall and wait a few hours.
If I am right — and this is one area where I am chronically unsure of myself — then this represents a direct challenge to the AA philosophy which is that sobriety is an end in itself; and that active non-drinking is the one and only answer. In response to my half-formed ideas, AA types will undoubtedly pull out the disease card: alcoholism, so it goes, is a disease, often inherited, for which there is no cure.
My cursory reading on the disease concept is that it began life as an instructive metaphor — alcoholism is very much like a disease — but it has taken on a literal meaning. I heard several AA members describe their condition as being akin to diabetes or heart disease, to which there is only one possible response: “Um, no it isn’t”.
As far as it goes, the disease metaphor is a useful way of focussing the attention of the addict on the chronic nature of their problem — but it is easy to stretch this to breaking point. Granted, there is a well-established genetic predisposition to alcohol abuse — my Irish ancestors, for example, were rarely sober — but this, I suspect, is far less significant that what it seems. In my case, it probably made it far more likely that I would resort to grog as my escape of choice than, say, self-mutilation or bulimia — but what else does it prove? Untroubled, the black box gathers dust.
AA adherents will have one of two responses to this: either, I am an alcoholic in denial on a one-way fast-track to relapse, or I was never really an alcoholic to begin with. To the true believers, it is simply inconceivable that sobriety can ever be achieved without the 12 steps, despite mountains of empirical evidence that it happens all the time. For them, the key to a sober life is to focus on not drinking with the same single-minded ferocity that they applied to getting hammered. But such an approach seems to me like a permanent, self-imposed and entirely avoidable hangover.
If a team of Martian anthropologists ever wanted to study the habits of middle-aged and middle class white men, they could do a lot worse than observing corporate hospitality at an Australian sporting event. These shin-digs are like socio-cultural time capsules, and last night’s Legends Room function for the All Blacks-Wallabies game at ANZ Stadium in Sydney was a fine example.
Corporate boxes show us what the world would be like if it were exactly how wealthy white sporting enthusiasts wanted it — which is, of course, not entirely unlike how the world actually is. Women are barely present, except for the occasional second wife or pushy middle manager. Ethnic minorities exist only in servitude. Red wine flows like an angry, flooded river; food is simple, meaty and fast. This is a world where jokes never get old, and where sport, not politics or religion or gravity, take its rightful place as the central organising force of the universe.
It was here I encountered a man of such abject and unrelenting ridiculousness that no radio play could possibly do him justice — but I can only try. I shall call him Lawyer. He was on our table, and sat directly behind me once we took our seats in the stand.
Through the course of 80 minutes of rugby, he sledged for 78 of them. Nasty, incoherent, unfunny sledging, revolving around the following meta-themes:
- The referee, a South African, is eager to secure a favourable roster at next year’s World Cup and was therefore favoring the All Blacks because the head of the international referee panel is a New Zealander.
- Richie McCaw ought to be imprisoned due to his constant and flagrant infringing; the only reason that this doesn’t happen is (refer to 1).
- All ethnic stereotypes are essentially accurate, especially when applied to the All Blacks who only remain competitive because (refer to 1)
- Homosexuals are surprisingly well represented among New Zealand’s rugby elite
- Despite what you may think, New Zealand’s relatively poor performance in international cricket has an immense bearing on proceedings.
Other themes were less explicitly addressed, most notably:
- I am a miserable, self-loathing alcoholic
It is not good form to counter-sledge a fellow guest on a corporate table so we resisted the Lawyer’s provocation admirably. Until, that is, the All Blacks had secured the most unconvincing kind of victory, winning by a solitary point. It was then my brother decided to collect his dues.
Corporate box hubbub, clinking and laughing, murmurs of disappointment, a touch of mourning.
BRO: So, how does if feel to watch your team lose a game in such a humiliating fashion?
LAW: What do you mean?
BRO: Well, you never should have lost that. We were shit, but we still won. I can only imagine how humiliating that must be, for you and everyone like you.
LAW: What’s your point?
BRO: Humiliation is the point. Not to mention the inalterable fact that the All Blacks have beaten you on ten consecutive occasions. Do your ruddy cheeks burn with shame, or is that just too much grog and high cholesterol?
LAW: No at all. I mean…
LAW: Do you know how many one-dayers the Kiwis have lost to Australia?
BRO: One-dayers? Are you talking about cricket?
LAW: Yes, of course! How many one-day defeats?
BRO: What? I don’t even follow cricket. It’s completely irrelevant.
LAW: Ha! See, you guys can’t face it!
BRO: Face what exactly?
LAW: NZ’s shameful cricket record.
BRO: I am talking about the rugby we have just finished watching. during which time we listened to you rant and rave without pause for 80 minutes — like an insane person.
LAW: What’s your point?
BRO: Take the pain, man.
LAW: What pain? I mean, what about the netball? The hockey! The Commonwealth medal tally! The better climate and greater resource wealth! Our comfortable lead on the alphabetical list of nation-states!
BRO: You are in denial. Just learn to live with the pain.
LAW: What pain? How many World Cups have you won?
LAW: How many?
BRO: Well, we all know the answer to that — but it’s not even vaguely relevant. The point is you squandered an unbeatable lead to crash to your TENTH CONSECUTIVE LOSS.
LAW: Why are you avoiding the question?
BRO: What question?
LAW: About the World Cups! We have won twice as many World Cups as you. Why won’t you admit it?
BRO: The Wallabies will never improve unless you face up to your own weaknesses and stop clinging to past victories.
LAW: What’s your point?
BRO: The point is, the Wallabies are shit.
LAW: I know you are, but what am I?
BRO: Are you for real?
LAW: I can’t hear you!
BRO: Are you sure that you’re not a fictional creation; more archetype than anything else?
LAW: Sorry, I have to go to the loo. Still can’t hear you!
BRO: If you’re just going to the loo, why have you put your coat on?
LAW: I can’t hear you!
BRO: And why are you calling a cab?
BRO: You bring shame to your people.
Sentence for sentence, Ian McEwan is the best living writer in English that I know. Even in his less-good books — of which his latest, Solar, is one — he is capable of crafting exquisite stand-alone sentences that almost deserve dust jackets and press tours to themselves. In Solar — which begins well but gets lost in too much plot — he writes this about the nature of memory:
But he had taken many taxis from Heathrow before, and he had been in many traffic jams, and memory was wax-soft, and soon his construction formed itself in his mind like any genuine recollection, both vague and certain.
It’s after sentences like this I find myself whispering “stop it, Ian McEwan” with envy-tinged awe.
This quote struck home because it touched on the unreliability of memory, a particular issue for me because I spent ten years of my life more often drunk than sober. As a result, my recollection of events until four years ago is obfuscated by grog, and it’s impossible to trust the few fragments that survived the deluge. My memories — wax-soft in McEwan’s words — have hardened into anecdotes over years of telling and retelling. By now, they are just stories.
Here is one such story, from the early-Sober period.
I provided media training for the Carlton Football Club in 2007 , soon after billionaire Richard Pratt had taken the struggling Australian Rules football club under his wing. My job was to offer the players a basic overview of how the media works and provide some simple tips on how to deal with press, radio and TV interviews. I ran “theory” sessions in two large groups, followed by practical run-throughs, complete with cameraman, in groups of 3-4 players at a time.
Brendan Fevola, who played for Carlton at the time, has made the news in Australia this week for allegedly indecently exposing himself to a “mother of four”. (Now, why does the fact that she is a “mother of four” make the sight of a penis more shocking, and not less?).
In the face of these allegations, Fevola is not receiving much benefit of the doubt from his current club, Brisbane, nor from anyone else. This is not surprising since Fevola has long been a problem-child – a boozer and a shagger, a public urinator and a shameless media whore. Waving his privates at a solitary woman in a carpark seems like a fairly standard day at the office for Fev.
Fevola refused to take part in the mock interviews because, I guess, he thought he was too experienced to need it. He did, however, sit through the “theory” sessions, making a series of “woe is me” statements about how football reporters that he “thought were me mates” wrote scathing stories about him. When he wasn’t whining, he was texting and giggling and showing off. To their credit, the other players were completely unimpressed, even the rookies who had worked out quickly that Fev, for all his footballing prowess and media profile, was about as good a choice for role model as Jeffrey Dahmer.
But Fev could not keep away from the one-on-one training sessions, even after refusing to take part himself. The presence of a camera was too much for him to resist.
Fevola arranged a physio session in the neighboring room that coincided with the on-camera interviews.
Periodically, Fev would emerge from the physio room and stand behind the cameraman and me and try to break the concentration of the whoever I was grilling at the time. This caused us to halt proceedings on a couple of occasions as the player in the chair lost his train of thought or broke into reluctant guffaws at Fev’s antics. The Carlton media guys just rolled their eyes, muttering “It’s Fev, what can you do?”.
Soon enough, the players learned to ignore to Fev’s disruptive presence. But Fevola is a child in a man’s body — an evil and stupid child, mind you — and he hates to be ignored. He needed to up the ante.
That was when Fev reached into his shorts and began to reveal the contents thereof. He was behind me, so I couldn’t see for myself — but I could feel the presence of an unwelcome intruder near at the point of my left shoulder, and perhaps even the gentlest of zephyrs as he gyrated his hips, drawing perfect imaginary circles with his now-exposed genitals.
The horror etched on my colleague’s face confirmed what was going on behind me, but the players themselves were unsurprised and unperturbed. This was clearly not the first time they had been subjected to the full Fevola package, nor was it likely the last. I am sure they count the day Fev packed his bags for Brisbane as among the happiest of their young lives.
What an irredeemable jerk.