Hard News by Russell Brown


Stella and the Fun Palaces

This is an extended version of an interview with Stella Duffy, conducted in mid-November while I was in London and originally published in Fairfax's Saturday Your Weekend magazine. Since the interview, Stella has made her trip to Nigeria (and written beautifully about it on Facebook), got married to Shelley for the fourth time, seen her Doctor Who book published, summed up her year and, earlier this month, had remedial surgery for the problematic breast reconstruction that had left her in pain and discomfort for months. Uncharacteristically, she is reported to have brifely listened to entreaties for her to take a damn rest afterwards. She is now back talking about Fun Palaces to anyone who will listen. You can follow Stella on Twitter

Many thanks to Your Weekend editor Sarah Daniell, who originally commissioned the story, for permission to post this here.


"I'm such an idiot," laments Stella Duffy. "I should have known better."

It's been an interesting week for Stella Duffy, novelist, playwright, theatre director, actor, occasional cancer patient, New Zealander. Yesterday, the Independent newspaper named her and her wife, playwright Shelley Silas, as one of Britain's "rainbow power couples". Today, she's being lambasted as an ungrateful wretch by Guardian readers.

It began the week before, when she wrote a laser-focus blog post about a consultation on the surgery that had addressed her second breast cancer (the first was in 1999, when she was 36). About standing semi-naked in front of a young, male breast reconstruction surgeon who seemed concerned only with how her breasts, including the one "that has, brilliantly, not had cancer," looked to him, rather than felt to her.

The British Medical Journal approached her to ask if it could run a shortened version, but The Guardian's Comment is Free editor was keen to re-publish it in full, where it would reach a bigger audience. She agreed. Now, the site's moderators can barely keep up with comments that don't "abide by our community standards". Her wife is away and she's been working at home all day, unable not to look at the comments.

She will end the week by flying to Lagos for the British Council, to lead workshops around her retrospective anthology of short stories, Everything is Moving, Everything is Joined. She's realistic about the need to tread carefully around "the sex and the lesbian stuff" in the collection, but otherwise has little idea of what to expect.

Although she grew up in Tokoroa and got her degree at Victoria, Duffy is far less well-known in New Zealand than she is in the land she left as a four year-old and has once again made home.

The journeys between London and Tokoroa are, to her, the story of her life and work. She tells the story in long, elliptical loops: her father, who came from New Zealand "to fight the fascists" in 1939, flew with the RAF's 75th Squadron, was a Nazi prisoner of war for four years, settled in London, had one failed marriage, met and wed her mother. And then, momentously, in 1967, boarded a vessel to New Zealand with Stella, her mother and her older sister Veronica, leaving five grown kids behind.

Pic: Four year-old Stella crosses the equator on her way to New Zealand.

"Two times in my life I saw my dad cry," she says. "Once, when I said I wasn't going to be a lawyer or a teacher. The other, when I was nearly five years old and the ship came into Wellington Harbour and my dad said 'I never thought I'd see this again' …"

She has to let a sob escape before she can carry on.

On landing, her penniless father found a job at Kinleith Mill and the family settled in Tokoroa. She was in all the school plays, wrote half of them. And one day, two young men from Theatre Corporate came to town with a shortened, two-handed Hamlet. One of them, her friends marvelled, looked like Paul Michael Glaser from Starsky and Hutch. She looked closer and realised that Starsky was Johnny Givens, from Tokoroa.

"I went to talk to him afterwards and said 'how do you do this?'. There was somebody like me in the arts. The scales fell from my eyes. I suddenly knew I could do what I wanted to do."

After taking a scholarship to Sacred Heart in Hamilton so she could study languages, she landed in Wellington to study at Victoria.

"First week at university, the week of my 18th birthday and I knew one other person who'd gone to Victoria. I was utterly scared. And on the second night there was a sort of cabaret night and I was sitting on the floor and the Topp Twins came on …"

She sighs theatrically.

"And Linda was funny and Jools was lovely and they sang beautifully. And they were clearly out. They weren't using the word 'lesbian' but it was obvious who and what they were. And they were brilliant. The Topp Twins were so important in my life.

"It all goes to this. All of it leads to what I'm doing now."

What's she's doing now, what all these stories tumble out and lead to, is the biggest project of her life.

That project is Fun Palaces, a nationwide arts-and-sciences festival that revives an idea championed by the stage director Joan Littlewood in 1961. The concept is that communities convene to gather, share and celebrate their own knowledge and skills; and that magic happens in the juxtaposition. The Tokoroa girl with the British class-consciousness is delighted that two thirds of Fun Palaces activity took place outside London. 

"What Joan wanted was that ordinary people would feel empowered and capable," she explains. "In 1961, the Arts Council sent her a letter that said 'Unfortunately, the Arts Council is interested in something Miss Littlewood isn't: art'."

In 2014, the British Arts Council gave Duffy and her collaborators £200,000 for costs as an "extraordinary award".

It was work she had personally held to through the year of her second cancer, and through the traumatic death of Silas's father. After her mastectomy and breast reconstruction, she looked out her window at St Thomas's hospital at the Royal Festival Hall, vowing that she would turn up there in three weeks' time to give a speech about Fun Palaces.

"We were prepared for me to do it in a wheelchair."

Duty, she says, was part of the family culture. Her father was president of the Tokoroa RSA for years ("a pisshead too, of course") and her mother president of the women's section.

I put it to her that she seems to understand her own motivations as clearly as if she was a character she'd written. She cackles.

"Well, I have written me. I've done two solo shows about me. Two cancers, where I have really looked at where I am and what I'm doing. So I've had to think about it a lot."

To suggest that she's a public intellectual would be to invite a slap, but she grants that she wants to be a good citizen.

"Yes. I still want to change the world, Russell. I haven't stopped wanting to change the world."

Is she always this busy?

"Yes. I am always this busy."

Today she's been working on the second draft of a commissioned play and looking forward to another dream realised -- the publication of The Anti-Hero, her first official Doctor Who novella. She picked the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton, "because he's my Doctor. The slightly grumpy twinkle-in-the-eye flute and recorder player. Brilliant. And you get to have Zoe.

"It was a really different process than anything else. I had a long conversation then gave them three potential ideas. Those ideas then had to be checked with two people -- the editor, and the Doctor Who geek who works for the BBC. So I got things back that said 'At this period in the Doctor's life, Zoe wouldn't be able to be saying this'. They compare it to every episode, all the books, everything the BBC has ever endorsed and say yes, you can have that, that and that, but you can't have this piece of the idea because it was done differently there. It was so interesting."

It's illustrative of both Duffy's remarkable range and her unsqueamish embrace of what snobs call "genre fiction". Alongside her "literary" work, she has written five crime novels starring lesbian detective Saz Martin and two reimaginings of Theodora, the empress of Constantinople, which went down a storm in Eastern Europe and have been optioned by HBO.

I have been friends with Stella Duffy since she arrived in London in the mid-80s, along with the rest of us; freed of the political strictures of eighties Wellington and growing back her sensuous red curls.

"In Wellington in 1984, it was considered inappropriate to be a lesbian and have the long red curly hair that I had. I was told that many, many times by the extreme wing of how-to-be-a-lesbian in New Zealand. It … wasn't me."

She came to be an actor, "but also because Wellington was too small. The only parts anyone wanted to see me for were the lesbian in the play. No one was ever going to see me for the sexy female girl lead, no matter what fucking haircut I had."

She says she never expected to stay, but even then she always seemed more purposeful than her peers, if no less up for fun. She kept house for the rich, saved money, embraced Buddhist practice, found acting work. She never forgets Tokoroa, or misses an All Black test. Did she even then have a vision for what she wanted to be?

"Yeah. Lady Macbeth at Stratford. I still do. And there's still time. I really believe that people play the Macbeths too young. Lady Macbeth should be in her sixties, it should be her fucking last-ditch attempt.

"There's still 10 years for that. That's why I came."


Stella Duffy dances by the Thames. Photo credit: Nadia Nervo.


CWC 2015: Contains graphic horror

If you happened to see Australia thump India in the last of their Cricket World Cup warm-up games last night, then you got a first look at the coverage you will see throughout the tournament. And you quite probably thought something along the lines what in the name of all that is holy am I watching?

The coverage is being produced by the Indian-based, Murdoch-owned channel Star Sports, which has paid millions of dollars to be the Cricket World Cup 2015 "host broadcaster". The ICC is billing it like this:

It won’t be possible for all cricket fans to be in the venues to watch the action first-hand so the next best thing will be ICC Cricket World Cup 2015 broadcast’s array of on-air enhancements and compelling and new graphic presentation to accompany the insightful and trusted voices of its expert group of commentators.

What that long and unlovely sentence actually means is this. Some version of this video game-like status bar, bobbleheads and all, takes up the bottom of the screen though most of the live action, including when deliveries are bowled ...

And when shots are played ...

Cuts between replays are stuffed with pointless, ugly visual garbage. The "on-air enhancements and compelling and new graphic presentation" look, frankly, like something the eighties called to say it didn't want back.

But it's not just the ugly graphic bling. On the highlights video here, look at Mitchell Johnson's dismissal from 02:21. He skies one and the cameraman and director are flailing first to get a shot that isn't obscured by the bar, then to find the ball, and end up with a crash zoom on the catcher. It's all over the place, like neither of them know the ground. There were other such wobbly moments in last night's coverage.

That's presumably because the "host" broadcaster has shipped in as many as 200 production staff for the Australian games and an unknown, but presumably large number to run coverage at New Zealand grounds. The Australian's "security fear" angle today is silly, but the rest of the story is interesting:

The mass of foreign workers for the World Cup has upset ­unions, crew and local broad­casters for a number of reasons, including job security, safety, the degradation of wages, and the possible outcome the event will not even provide a net economic benefit to the local broadcast sector.

Safety is a particular concern. Workers needing to be inducted to work at the SCG, for instance, are doing so via computer link rather than face-to-face. It is believed the ICC’s document on safety for broadcast crew is three pages long; its document concerning the protection of image and ICC branding rights is 60 pages long.

There are doubts foreign workers are doing the induction themselves, with fears that they have also had their visa applications completed for them in such a way to bypass normal visa ­restrictions.

Indeed, it is not even known what class of visa the inter­national broadcast crews are using to enter Australia, meaning they will be paid below the required pay rates and not subject to local employment terms and ­conditions.

The paper says production call sheets indicate that 85% of crew on the four teams Star Sports has assembled to deliver coverage here and in Australia will be flown in. On the evidence of last night's game – which at times was genuinely hard to watch – it would seem that we're in for significantly poorer coverage than we're used to.

This is all about money. Star Sports has paid millions to the ICC so it can embed adverising and sponsorship IPL-style into the coverage. With India playing poorly and the more reliable commercial opportunities of the IPL lined up directly after this tournament, that plan appears not to be going too well, but you can expect in-game advertising to be normalised like it never has been before in an internatonal cricket tournament.

Maybe last night's match was a rough dress rehearsal. Maybe we'll grudgingly get used to the bling. Or maybe we'll find ourselves thinking that WASP wasn't so bad after all.

There, in all this, one small but unalloyed mercy. The "blended" commentary teams have been announced. And amongst the 30-odd former players lined up to talk over the pictures, one name is missing. There will be no Danny Morrison.


Friday (Thursday) Music: The Chant returns

It's been one of those things you didn't like to ask about. Street Chant's sophomore album, Hauora, has been coming so long that its continued failure to materialise might suggest there was a problem. But it's on, ladies and gentlemen.

The principal hold-up has been a lineup change -- a new drummer replacing Alex Brown (who plays on the album and is in one of two videos already in the can). But the band is back, with Street Chant playing the Wellington support on Parquet Courts' tour next month. Salad Boys also play support on all dates: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin.

The first single from the album is also due next month.

For now, Emily Littler has posted a new track in her Emily Edrosa guise:


Late edit (perils of posting on a Thursday): Ian "Blink" Jorgenson's 'A Movement' is a series of 10 books containing 1000 photographs taken by Blink in the indie music world between 2000 and 2015. Details of the book and the associated tour are here. And here's the beautiful trailer:


I'm filling in on Bright and Urlich, 9-11am on 95bFM on Saturday.

Also: the Splore schedule, featuring Roy Ayers, Mr Scruff, Phoenix Foundation, SJD and much more,  is up today! I'll write in more detail about the talk programme I'm running closer to the time.


Win! Flying Nun is offering a free Robert Scott album to one of the people who shares its new Spotify/YouTube playlist Flying Nun: an introduction.

Herald hipster Bernard Orsman brought us the news yesterday that Parnell is getting cool again. Well, not really. "Less awfully becalmed", perhaps. And hey, if it keeps them all out of Ponsonby that's a win-win. Meanwhile, Audioculture has the lowdown on when Parnell was really cool: 1978, when the punks were there.


The new Anthonie Tonnon song I mentioned last week is available for tasting (and downloading!) now. In keeping with the Tonnon style, it's an epic guitar pop song about ... local body politics. Good times!

That's on NZ On Air's Kiwi Hit Disc 178, which I think is the best edition of the long-running radio sampler in a long time. You have to be a radio/music biz luvvie to get one of those, but nearly all the tracks are already on Soundcloud, including ...

Kamandi's dense, electronic 'Martyrs' (from the mysterious Secret Club label):

DPTRCLB's supple dance track 'Horizon':

And Randa's 'Rangers', which also got a sweet new Robert Wallace video this week:

Note also the NZ On Air staff's playlist of local artists to watch in 2015:

Currently at number two on TheAudience's chart: this zesty synthpop tune from Boy Wulf, aka "Tim, a 21 year old farm-worker from Te Awamutu". I think one of TheAudience's virtues is that you don't have to be in Auckland or Wellington to get noticed:

You can even be in Brooklyn, New York, as is The Sneaks' (and former Lawrence Arabia band member) Daniel Ward, aka Droor:

Jeremy Toy presents an edit from his soulful, jazzy alter-ego Leonard Charles:

BREAKING!! New Leonard Charles: a rework of Janet Jackson's 'Any Time Any Place':


And, finally, the brand new Leftside Wobble vocal dub of the forthcoming (March 16) Byan Ferry single – free for a limited time! Click through, locate and hit that download arrow right now ...


The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:



Review: Citizenfour

Citizenfour, the Edward Snowden movie, is an unusual film. It tells a story that spans the globe and has a fair claim on being the story of our times, but its heart – and more than half its running time – is in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden, the NSA whistleblower, spent eight days in 2013 sharing the secrets he had gathered.

It's an amazingly intimate depiction of a historical encounter. We habitually imagine what it might have been like to be "in the room" for great moments, knowing that the moment has passed and we never will be. And yet here we are, in the room.

The meeting in the hotel room is the culmination of the long process of the gaining of trust that began when Snowden, who first identified himself as "Citizenfour", contacted the film's director Laura Poitras to talk about the intolerable mass surveillance of which he had been a part at the US National Security Agency, and to raise the alarm. Their encrypted conversations, before Hong Kong and after, are the film's narrative thread.

The eight days begin with Snowden calm, confident – he has planned this – and perhaps a little giddy that the plan is coming together. By the end, events have broken loose out in the world and Snowden, still with his oddly formal charisma, looks drained and anxious. They don't know where this goes next. In the one sequence where he seems genuinely rattled, he worries what he has done to Lindsay Mills, the girlfriend he was obliged to leave behind in Hawaii.

Any journalist who has taken an interest in this story will be intrigued by the other two people on camera. Glenn Greenwald, then a stroppy Guardian columnist, is wired, keen to go. Ewan MacAskill, the hugely experienced intelligence corespondent The Guardian has sent to Hong Kong to assess the situation, is reserved, phlegmatic, cautious. At one point he observes to Snowden that he doesn't know anything about him. Snowden, slightly taken aback, asks if the reporter wants his professional background, personal story or what. "No," says MacAskill, "I don't even know your name."

And yet at that point, The Guardian is poised to run Greenwald's first two Snowden stories – even though it's clear that, as they gaze at a graphic on Snowden's laptop, they're not even really sure what they're looking at. I asked Greenwald about this when I interviewed him last year and he said that one of those stories, about the NSA's mass collection of call records from the telco Verizon, was "a relatively easy story to report" because the secret court order compelling Verizon to turn over the records was so clear.

But is that a reason to go to press two days after you've met your source? (Ironically, the Verizon story was, of all the leads in Snowden's trove, one that wasn't entirely news. The ACLU had been immersed in a Freedom of Information Act battle over the phone records programme for two years.) The second story, the revelation of the Prism programme, suffered from a lack of clarity over what Prism actually was, and the means and relationships through which giant companies like Yahoo and Apple were required to provide access to their customers' information. The Guardian wound up a day later trying to tally various other claims with what it thought it had gleaned from Snowden's Powerpoint slides. I do think this hurt their later, much more substantial, reporting.

In this light it's hard not to feel that instead of rushing to place Snowden at the centre of the story (somewhat against his own judgement, it seems), Greenwald should have been quizzing him for more detail. What exactly is Prism? Can you characterise it for us, and explain its machinery? How do you know this?

There's also no hint in the film of the pressure Greenwald placed on The Guardian to go quickly, or of his unseemly spat with another journalist Snowden had contacted, the Washington Post's Barton Gellman. And although the British government's extraordinary order to The Guardian to destroy the hard drives on which its Snowden data had been stored is covered, it's somewhat out of context and probably puzzling to someone who doesn't already know the story. Where, I found myself wondering, is Alan Rusbridger in all this?

As George Packer's excellent New Yorker profile of Poitras as she was finishing the film last year notes, her inevitable falling-out with Wikileaks is missing from the story too. The phase in which Wikileaks entered the story, looking to spirit Snowden to Ecaudor via Moscow and making it only as far as Moscow airport, also seems to lack detail.

But let's not quibble too much. Poitras and Greenwald both sacrificed a good deal of what peace they had left in their private lives in taking on this staggeringly important story. They have not paid as much of a personal cost as Snowden himself, but they have paid.

Towards the end of the film, there is a resolution of a sort: Mills, now reunited with Snowden in Russia, is shown making dinner with him, in a shot through the window of the dacha where they will live for the foreseeable future. It's an equilibrium, but not an end. The end of this story seems a long, long way off yet.


Advance screenings of Citizenfour begin at Auckland's Academy Cinema on Sunday. Details here.

The film opens on February 12 at the Rialto Newmarket and the Lighthouse Cinema, Cuba Street, Wellington. Screenings begin on February 19 at Alice Cinemateque in Christchurch and there will be "select screenings" at the Rialto in Dunedin.


Friday Music: Fickle Rock

One of the good things about seeing Courtney Barnett playing Laneway this week (see Jackson's Capture post for great photos – and various reviews in the comments) was hearing songs from her forthcoming album (see the Rolling Stone story here).  And lo, we haven't had to wait long for a more enduring taste, with the release of the video for the first single, 'Pedestrian at Best', a song about the fleeting nature of critical fame.


I tweeted this last week, but it's worth highlighting here too: Simon Grigg's Trawling through the crates – the lost record stores of inner Auckland for Audioculture is a great, and nicely illustrated, tour of places that used to be.

See also John Dix's Strangers on the Shore, a look at musical immigrants, from jazzman Bob Gilett to madman Jaz Coleman.

And separately, a profile of Thai-born Simon Kong, a largely unheralded player n New Zealand's dance culture.


This is very cool. Auckland vinyl collector Kris Holmes has posted a mix compiled from his collection of gospel 7" singles. It's a lovely listen:

I Won't Have To Cry - A Deep Gospel 45s Mix by Kris_Holmes on Mixcloud


Another week, another impressive young woman from Christchurch representing on TheAudience. This time it's 17 year-old Maya Payne and this is quite a track.

Also, in "can't post this right now" news, Anthonie Tonnon has a nice new tune coming. 'Water Underground' is the fruit of his relationship with the Pittsburgh label Wild Kindness, which is premiering the track overnight. I'll add the embed when it goes public this weekend.

Finally, I've been asked to DJ in the dance tent next Sunday, the 8th, at the 2015 Big Gay Out and I am delighted both to be part of an event that always makes me proud to be a Point Chevalian, and at the prospect of busting out some Big Gay Tunes. Not sure exactly what time I'm on yet, but I'll let you know next week.

It's highly likely that this will get a spin ...

And just to celebrate, I've put that up as a big-ass WAV download (90MB!) for today only (I should really ask Bobby, but it's just a few hours and hopefully he'll approve of the purpose). Right-click here, save-as and dance like a whole tent full of people are watching and you just don't care.


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