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SRB: All Aboard the Literary Express

SRB Picks of the Week 12 July 2008
By Jeremy Rose for the Scoop Review of Bookselectric-trains-johnsonville.jpg
My childhood bedroom was about 10 metres from the Johnsonville Railway line - halfway between Simla Crescent and Boxhill Stations - and the passing trains rattled the Victorian sash-windows next to my bed. The English Electric DM/D Class Units that plied the line had a powerful Cyclops-like headlight and the shadows it cast raced around my bedroom walls.

So why the nostalgia?

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It's hard to open a newspaper or magazine these days without coming across some new "green" mode of personal transport. Paul McCartney has a hybrid stretched limo and Hollywood stars are to be the first allowed to lease to hydrogen cars.

The idea of an eco-friendly stretched limo is plainly bullshit. But the English Electric DM/D Units really are a green wonder. The first Morris Minors were a decade from rolling off the production line when the DM/D Units started their daily commutes on the J'Ville line 70 years ago last week. The trains and the men and women who have kept them running for seven decades deserve to be celebrated. The units seemed old when I first rode on them nearly four decades ago. The chrome handles on the reversible seats were worn to point where the brass underneath was exposed and cigarette butts were ground into the gaps in the floors creating a mosiac-like carpet. The units would rate as vintage if they were cars but somehow they've been kept going - refurbished every 15 or 20 years and are still recognisably the same trains. These electrified and collectified stretched-Morris Minors deserve a place in the Green Hall of Fame (if it doesn't already exist it will soon.)

With impeccable timing Victoria University has put the entire New Zealand Railway Magazine on-line. The magazine was published from 1926 to 1940 and includes this coverage of the arrival of the DM/Ds and this wonderful description of Queenstown by Robin Hyde.

The idea of Robin Hyde writing for the Railways reminded me of those fantastic Len Lye films commissioned by the British Post Office.

If was an era when industries and enterprises were proudly owned by the people and weren't afraid to celebrate their existence. Maybe now that the Railways have been re-nationalised we can look forward to it commissioning some of today's hot young talent to do something equally cutting edge.

But not if the Listener has anything to do with it. Last week's editorial raised the spectre of the railways becoming an insatiable consumer of taxpayer dollars.

The editorial claimed there was "no successful international model on which KiwiRail can be based. Finance Minister Michael Cullen acknowledges it may never make money".

But making money shouldn't be the only measure of success. The Johnsonville-line is a case in point. Without the DM/Ds carrying thousands of commuters a day into the city the roads would have been clogged, our foreign reserves would have been even more depleted with even more petrol consumed and more cars imported.

Virtually every country in Europe has a successful - publicly owned - railway system on which KiwiRail could model itself. One that doesn't is Britain whose attempt at creating a market driven rail system has been as disastrous and costly to the taxpayer as our own. You can read just how disastrous here.


The Guardian has a rave review of Kapka Kassabova's Street Without a Name: Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria

The recent death of a Kiwi-born soldier temporarily refocused the media's attention on the ongoing war in Afghanistan. The Independent has a review of Descent Into Chaos, by Ahmed Rashid which sounds like a must-read for anyone interested in topic.

Hazel Rowley talks about her new biography of Richard Wright on ABC's The Book Show. Well worth a listen for any fans of Wright. I was particularly interested to hear of James Baldwin's attacks on Wright in the '50s - something he later bitterly regretted, apparently.


Published by the Scoop Review of Books this week....

The Not-So-Dismal Science
The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman
W. W. Norton and Company. Reviewed by TERENCE WOOD
Writing in 1954 a senior American politician had this advice for his brother. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance…labor laws and farm programmes, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are…[a few] Texas Oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Five Crime Novels that Inspire My Writing
Auckland crime writer ANDREA JUTSON - author of the just published The Darkness Looking Back - nominates five crime novels that have influenced her writing.

Drunken Escapades and a Hapless Love Life
Under The Osakan Sun by Hamish Beaton
Awa Press, $35. Reviewed by LYNDON HOOD
It is, according to the overloaded subtitle, a “Funny Intimate Wonderful Account” of the three years Hamish Beaton spent as an assistant English teacher in a Japanese school. If you’re thinking Under the Osakan Sun is likely to be the yarns he told friends and family about his stay turned into a book, you won’t have to read all the way to the acknowledgements to have that confirmed. The book has all the benefits you might expect from such anecdotes – and few of the drawbacks.

Poem of the Week Blackberries
From: The Moon, In Seven Easy Steps by Scott Hamilton
Titus Books, $22.

Jeremy Rose is the editor of the Scoop Review of Books and a Wellington journalist.


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