Pith & Wind - Falling over and forgetfulness
I felt as though I’d officially
graduated into the wobbly ranks of the infirm and senile when I took
a tumble in Canberra the other day and ended up face-down on the pathway
being lightly sprayed by the hissing lawn-sprinklers.
I didn’t do myself too much damage thankfully - just a graze
on my left elbow and a bruised left hip - but I know how these misadventures
can impact on the elderly’s quality of life and, as I said,
I guess I have to consider myself well and truly one of them now.
The signs of mortality are making themselves known in so many subtle
ways and on a daily basis - failing sight and hearing of course, slowing
reflexes and memory lapses. And I’m sure there was something
My father David, (whom I think of as Dad and Dave Rudd) continues
to live home alone at the age of ninety-four with only the most basic
one-day-a-week assistance - and has just been granted an optimistic
further two years on his drivers’ license. He is understandably
very relieved and I’m sure his fellow road users in Rotorua,
scarcely a bustling metropolis, will have no trouble accommodating
his occasional lapses of judgement.
David worked as a stock and station agent for most of his working
life (much to the disappointment of ‘the colonel’, his
father, who fervently wished he would show the slightest inclination
to follow in his legal-type footsteps). In this capacity he utterly
relied on his continued ability to drive himself around – and
around. He drove great distances, servicing the entire North Island
of New Zealand, based in unlikely sounding towns like Eketahuna and
Waikikamukau, and his numerous scrapes in his enormous Chevrolet and
Ford company cars were legendary - at least in his own mind. My brother
Richard and I used to love being driven to all points of the North
Island by our father in the August holidays, although these days I
suspect it was the easiest way for him to keep us entertained. Anyway,
to lose his (tiny) car at the end of his life would be like losing
a limb - or perhaps two limbs - even if these days he only uses it
to go to the library and back.
All the colourful characters that populate his rip-roaring road adventures
have long since passed away of course – much to David’s
sorrow - and Richard and I now regret not taking the time to notate
at least some of his many tales of long-distance love, hair-raising
car accidents and occasional acts of treachery.
As I keep saying, the project of writing the tale of my own life and
times is never far from my mind these days and coincidentally yet
another reminder of my very early days arrived in my inbox just after
Christmas. It was from Peter Dodwell, a fellow chorister at the Christchurch
Cathedral and it was a scan of the cover of an EP of Christmas carols
that the choir released in 1958 (!) plus an mp3 of one of the tracks
Crikey! In 1958 I was an unworldly thirteen-year-old and the possibility
of a career in rock music would have never entered my innocent little
head - in fact I was barely aware that such a world existed. As I’ve
mentioned previously, the outside world was channelled into Christchurch
on the airwaves through the agency of two government-owned radio stations
and while the commercial station’s playlist did include popular
music it was necessarily broad and pretty unadventurous - it was a
big step when they presented a syndicated half-hour ‘pop’
hit parade on just the one night of the week.
The actual big event of the week were the request sessions on Sunday
– the children’s in the morning and the grown-ups’
in the early afternoon. It’s quite possible that every person
in Christchurch had their name read out at some stage as requesting
this or that song or comedy skit. Oh, My Papa (Eddy Fisher)
was a big favourite and will give you an idea of the tenor of the
It was onto this apparently infertile ground that Rock Around
the Clock exploded in the mid-fifties and the 3ZB request programmes
were never the same again.
You can get an impression of the effect that the release of such a
record had in those days from a movie that’s getting a lot of
promotion right now – which means to me at least, that it’s
probably a ‘worthy’ movie that not an awful lot of people
are going to see. The movie in question is Cold War about
which I had absolutely no expectations when Maria and I saw it recently
at our almost-local Cameo Cinemas in Belgrave, having neither read
the reviews nor heard about it from anybody who’d seen it. (Having
now seen it we both thoroughly recommend it, BTW).
Anyway, the movie is a love story (somebody described it to me the
other day as having a similar trajectory to Casablanca) but
set in post-war Poland with a location change to Paris at one stage.
I was overjoyed to find that while there is abundant incidental music,
much of it live, beautifully arranged, performed and recorded, there
was no film score as such – background musical enhancement is
one of my pet hates. However, it’s that moment in the film that
Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock crashes the party
that took me back to when I first heard the song as a very young feller.
Hearing it in the context of this essentially European movie also
recalibrates the importance of the song in the history of popular
I never saw Blackboard Jungle, but I saw the trailer in 1955,
or given that Christchurch is at the end of the civilised world more
likely 1956, which was when the Bill Haley’s track came up –
it featured under the opening credits for the actual movie. (Or rather,
a version of the song featured under the credits –
apparently it was an alternative mix that had the sequence of sax
and guitar solos reversed from the standard version we knew then).
It probably wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but being
presented in the context of a sensationalist teen movie played a big
part in my appreciation of the song. Or lack thereof.
Because I have to confess that I was a little bit nervous about rock’n’roll
music at that age. Rockabilly and rock’n’roll music were
often identified with what were known in New Zealand at the time as
milk-bar cowboys, sometimes also mistakenly called (at least by my
grandmother) Teddy Boys (after the fashion-conscious English model
who were indeed responsible for the trashing the hall at a Comets’
London performance) and then later as bodgies and even later again
in the mid-sixties as rockers – the local and UK nemesis of
the mods. These Kiwi cowboys wore jeans and black leather jackets
and had brush-back greasy hair and often rode big motor-bikes. In
the press they were often rather hysterically characterised as ‘juvenile
delinquents’, a tag I suspect they rather liked.
Anyway, I was terrified of them and their reputation. I regularly
encountered a mob of them in the Cathedral Square after choir practise.
They used to hang around the Plaza theatre (and the next-door milk
bar of course) on the other side of the Square but not far enough
away for me from my bus stop for sedate Cashmere Hills.
The Plaza showed a lot of B grade horror and SF movies that the cowboys
favoured and they also enjoyed revving-up their bikes and generally
putting the frighteners on the general populace – and peripheral
So, Bill Haley’s song playing in a movie called Blackboard
Jungle just seemed too anti-social by half for timid Michael
and I just didn’t get the fun aspect at the time.
Meanwhile in the movie Cold War we’d been listening
to Polish folk songs interspersed with self-serving political songs
sung by choirs and accompanied by folk and classical instruments -
and some very cool jazz - when the Comets dropped their driving rockabilly
It was an electrifying moment. I have to say the record still sounds
bloody marvellous and it sounds even more marvellous on a theatre
sound system cranked up to pain-threshold level. It’s exciting
even now and for me the guitar solo remains a seminal statement.
Incidentally, there’s a bit of a Beatles’ Love Me
Do story attached to the recording, (which was originally released
as a B side), because the Comets’ drummer at the time was, like
Ringo, overlooked for the session in favour of Billy Gussak, a session
drummer. There was also a session guitarist (Danny Cedrone) added
to the line-up for the recording who played the riveting solo I mentioned.
These two players were inspired choices for the track – I imagine
the drum track would be more muscular as a result for example - and
were probably responsible for helping make it the exciting track it
There are many other stories about the recording of Rock Around
the Clock record, some clearly apocryphal, that tell you that
its popularity - like popularity in general - was the end result of
a whole lot of coincidences, misadventures and just dumb luck. If
it hadn’t been picked up for Blackboard Jungle for
example it may have remained as an unheard B-side to a poor-selling
One of the superficial reasons that I never took to Bill Haley and
His Comets was that Bill Haley in particular, despite or even because
of his manicured kiss curl, looked like such a dag. I’m
still that superficial guy in some respects, but while issues of appearance
will remain of critical importance to teenagers I’m thankful
I’ve lasted to a sufficient age to finally appreciate that Rock
Around the Clock was not just one of the first rock’n’roll
records to achieve wide acceptance around the world, but that it arguably
remains one of the best.
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Toolbox - Cars as Sculpture
Well it is the silly season and so let me be
just a little silly and ask the question: ‘Can some cars be
considered art?’ What could be sillier? It is obvious that a
Toyota is a Camry and a Da Vince is a Mona Lisa. We are inundated
by cars mostly of an indeterminate form designed to move humanity
and protect its occupants from reality, others cars and common-sense.
They are things; commodities like washing machines with wheels and
added lethality. Do I contemplate their beauty – well only to
comment that they are mostly ugly at worst and, at best, boring? But
sometimes a ray of sunshine bursts through the clouds of mediocrity
and one says to oneself – I wish there were more of like that.
There are not many truly outstanding works of art but there are many
mediocre ones perhaps in some arcane relationship to the number of
indifferently shaped cars. Just because a painting is in a gallery
doesn’t mean it is any good as a wander through the Louvre will
indicate. It may just have survived several hundred years of conflict
and rising damp.
So where to start? By being serious? I’ll try for a paragraph
The word beauty is an aesthetic term. The word aesthetic, as an adjective,
means giving or designed to give pleasure through beauty; as a noun
it means a set of principles underlying the work of a particular artist
or artistic movement. This means that the Jaguar E Type Series 1 is
a work of art, perhaps by definition but also according to the magazine
Autocar which created a list of the twenty most beautiful cars of
all time. They believe that the 1955 Citroen DS19 and the 1957 Ferrari
TR250 are beautiful as they give pleasure through their appearance.
But they might just be wrong - except for the Ferrari TR250, number
nineteen on their list which, compared to the svelte Aston Martin
DB9 looks like a bag of bolts. The problem is that none of the cars
chosen were designed to be merely beautiful even though there was
a variant of the Citroen named ‘Goddess’.
I’m going to hold off on why the Ferrari TR250 is more beautiful
except to say there is a primacy of engineering in the aesthetics
of the automobile.
I have been involved in a discussion whether cars, some cars, or even
any car, can be considered to be sculpture, and therefore art. A work
of art comparable in category to ‘stuff’ that you see
in galleries. And a work of art doesn’t have to be beautiful,
by the way, but it does have to be a created as an object worthy of
contemplation. Which at first glance would say cars are in with an
internally combusted start.
This debate was triggered by a visit to Motorclassica, a gathering
of vintage, classic and exotic cars and the motoring enthusiasts that
flock around them like bees to honey, held at the Royal Exhibition
Building. Colour, light, glitter, buffed alloy and chrome, engine
castings of magnificent craftsmanship, and cars that were worth very
little when new that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars now.
It was the second time I have been to this automotive event, both
times accompanied by a friend possessed of a very logical, analytic
and questioning mind; blessed or biased with an engineering perspective
but also possessed of an aesthetic sensibility. This he denies but
this may be because he is taller than me and an ex-racing car driver.
And it was an event where people were definitely contemplating cars
with awe, tenderness and traces of envy. They moved slowly with glazed
expressions and tremulous lips perhaps through the thrill of being
in the ultimate sweetshop where the money had already been spent and
you weren’t able to buy anything.
Without any scientific backing I am inclined to think that there is
a gene that affects a significant majority of the male population
which causes an infatuation with the automobile. My two year old grandson
had a limited vocabulary but already it includes the words ‘Aston
The show had automobiles of all ages ranging from the latest supercars
to vehicles which could claim to be vintage. Or if not vintage, or
classic, and if not that at least interesting because apart from Ferraris
galore there were several Morris J-Type vans of a distinctly utilitarian
nature that were apparently a commonplace sight in the 1950s. One
was decked out in the green livery of Pipe Perfection Plumbers so
there is an attempt at a certain classlessness. Mind you they were
outside, baking in the sun and away from the aristocracy.
The particular car which sparked the debate was a six-cylinder Delage
D6/70S. In 1936, a D6 was prepared for the 24 Hours of Le Mans with
a lightweight Figoni et Falaschi body, but a general strike caused
the event to be cancelled. The car was lost during WW2, and the car
displayed was built by Artisan Coachworks of Melbourne using photographs
of the original car, and built on a rolling chassis purchased in Europe.
All very surprising and a fantastic bit of craftsmanship but of course
this compounds the problem by adding the ‘concept of originality’.
This then is not the real car but an excellent ‘forgery’.
If a painting had been destroyed in WWII but recreated from photographs
would we hold it in the same sort of veneration as the lost original?
I think not. I can build a replica of a Shelby Cobra which is probably
better than the original but it isn’t going to fetch a tenth
as much money as the original dangerous compound of excessive power
and a delicate chassis.
It was without doubt beautifully designed and to my, and my friend’s
mind, the most bewitching car in the show.
Anyway I wondered if there was a simple test to make the distinction
between art and the automobile. So I now propose the following : if
I were to remove a recognised piece of sculpture from a gallery and
put it into a motor show would it be immediately categorised as art?
I am pretty sure that everyone would say, “That is a bit of
sculpture, and what’s it doing here?” They are not going
to say that the wheels have fallen off Barbara Hepworth.
Now for the standard issue of sculpture, the sort of thing you trip
over when you step back to admire a painting, I think this is true.
Michael Angelo’s ‘David’ would stand out as art
in even a Trabant showroom, because we are accustomed to it and its
classification. A modern abstract work such as a Clement Meadmore’s
‘Dervish’ a large twisted Cor-ten steel work at the Melbourne
Art Centre would also be non-controversial as sculpture. As we advance
into minimalist and conceptual art, twigs, words and other ephemera,
we would have less agreement that it was art - though not that it
wasn’t a car.
Is the converse true? Was there any automobile that I could put into
a gallery and have it be regarded as an art work? My first reaction,
which I still think is true, is that there isn’t one. And that
is that no matter how well designed, a car is not primarily an object
for contemplation. Yes you may contemplate it if you so choose but
that is an optional extra like metallic paint. It is, no matter what
else, a functional object.
Is it possible to divorce oneself from the fact that it has a use?
Can we just contemplate the shape of a car for its own sake divorced
from its practicality? From experience we know we can contemplate
a two thousand year old Grecian Urn for just its beauty and ignore
the fact it’s just a decorated olive oil container – though
this way of looking is aided by the fact that it is now only to be
found in a museum and not the larder. Certainly one could contemplate
a car for just its looks but it that would be like looking at George
Clooney only as a man who advertises coffee. Keat’s Ode on a
Grecian Urn which starts, ‘Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness
….. and ends "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that
is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know" doesn’t
contemplate the quality of the olive oil that was once inside
Let me deal with the idea of car and the phrase ‘object of contemplation’.
There are many definitions of sculpture. For the moment we will go
with the Oxford’s: “The art of forming solid objects that
represent a thing, person, idea, etc. out of a material such as wood,
clay, metal, or stone, or an object made in this way.” Of course
as soon as this is put forward the immediate reaction is “But
……” and Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ springs
to mind. Springs to mind is the operative words as it is a men’s
urinal reoriented it to a position 90 degrees from its normal position
of use. This was exhibited (though behind screens) in the 1917 Society
of Independent Artists in New York. History is a little vague but
it is believed that Duchamp purchased a standard Bedfordshire model
urinal from the J. L. Mott Iron Works, 118 Fifth Avenue and wrote
on it, "R. Mutt 1917. Of course the original has been lost so
when you see one of these works it’s not the original just one
indistinguishable from the original.
But is it art? If you judged by Art History books where it features
you might think so, even though it was intended by Duchamp, that sly
under-miner of societal and artistic pretension and any form of seriousness
apart from his own, as an ironic commentary about art works. Is an
object a work of art simply by being situated in a gallery? By placing
any object in a gallery to be looked at, to be contemplated, is it
If we accept a urinal what’s the problem with a car? Well let’s
start with the fact that I would say that ‘Fountain’ isn’t
a work of art but an object that asks a question about art. But that
doesn’t make it art in its own right even though it’s
in a gallery and very famous. The question having been asked the specific
object is almost immaterial; it is the physical manifestation of a
philosophical question. Having accepted the question I would not be
moved to have the urinal in the living room.
But to bring this to a brief conclusion:
Cars are not art but they are more interesting and better constructed
than much of what passes as art. The engineering that makes up a car
is often beautiful in its own right.
I might not think that an Aston Martin DB4 Zagato is art but I think
that I might prefer one to a Picasso.
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Trans-Tasman Tales - ?
Wazzer's Trans-Tasman Tales are on holiday while
the author undertakes pressing renovations in Paradise.
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