Random Play by Graham Reid


The canyons of my mind

For about 15 years I played two games of rugby every Saturday: one for school and one for Cornwall Park. Lotsa practices, lots of rucks and stiff-arm tackles.

I wasn’t a very good hooker (the puniest kid in the team) and wasn’t fast on the wing, but I was a pretty decent break-away and for quite a while was the surprisingly accurate goal-kicker. I could get them through the uprights from just about anywhere in their half.

The things was though, I never much liked playing the game. I had teeth broken in those days before mouthguards, hated being trapped at the bottom of a ruck -- my fear was that I could drown in those ill-drained fields we used to play on regardless of how torrential the rain -- and over the years getting punched in the face and on freezing cold ears wasn’t my idea of an interesting way of spending a Saturday.

Up until recently I thought my schoolboy and university days on the paddock were about the roughest thing (after a couple of street fights ) I could get involved in: then I started going to record fairs to find stupid old bits of vinyl.

Last weekend I went to one just around the corner and fortunately I got there early, because by around 10am there was elbow-jabbing from big sweaty fiftysomething men in acrid, sweat-drenched shirts. If it hadn’t been for the treasures I found, it wasn’t my idea of an interesting way of spending a Saturday.

But I did find what I call treasures: a few 7 inch EPs from the 50s and 60s of songs “for adults only” and which feature girls in tight sweaters (one by Noel “Diamond Lil” McKay), Hawaiian albums, How to Enjoy Your Bagpipe by Anna Russell, a 10 inch of pre-Beatles pop star Tommy Steele (I picked up his biography a year or so ago, hilarious tales of dodgy promo tricks from his manager, a former Kiwi called John Kennedy), and much more.

After Megan had laughed loudly at I Wanna Hold Your Handbeing barked by dogs she looked at me as the needle swung into Love Me Do and said, “You’re not going to play the whole album, are you?”

I skulked off to listen to Peter Harcourt’s In Search of the Land of the Long White Shroud (which features the song September in Ohakune) in my office.

I love these old records, I find them quite transporting -- but what I have been grooving to recently (if that is the right phrase) are two box sets of three albums apiece called Dialogues on Democracy which I picked up at Real Groovy for $4 each.

These are recordings of US election campaigns and convention speeches, discussions on presidential power and the role of Congress, and the speeches by the actual people from Grover Cleveland in 1892 to John F Kennedy with pitstops for FDR, Harry Truman, Eisenhower and so on. I find it compelling.

Okay I don’t listen to this for hours on end -- I sometimes take a break and put on Ruth Wallis’ saucy Red Hot Risque or John Raitt’s croon-fest Mediterranean Magic -- but it is quite revealing, and puts current events in the US into a larger context.

Mr Obama doesn’t have a monopoly on uplifting speeches. Here’s just the start of a William Jennings Bryan speech in 1896: “I come to speak to you in the defence of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty -- the cause of humanity.” It’s all up from there and he ends a few minutes later declaiming, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Brilliantly poetic -- and he was speaking to the issue of using the gold standard. You just can’t imagine the governor of the Reserve Bank rising to those eloquent and moving heights when discussing interest rates, huh?

Roosevelt placed the name of a fellow Democrat before the convention as a nominee for their presidential candidate with this ringing endorsement: “We offer one who has the will to win, who not only deserves success but commands it. Victory is his habit.”

He was Alfred E. Smith -- a surname away from a Mad magazine cover actually -- and he was trounced by Herbert Hoover. Oh well, that’s politics.

What you also hear in these voices from the past is humour, humanity and vicious stabs of the kind that spin doctors and advisors have ironed out of the current era. This is Harry Truman on his rival Thomas E Dewey: “He opened his mouth and closed his eyes and he swallowed the terrible record of that good-for-nothing 80th Congress.”

Here’s Democrat Adlai Stevenson -- a very witty, erudite and amusing man -- on the standard of debate from his rivals: “I have tried to talk about public questions. This road had lead me through some twenty states. But strangely enough my friends, this road has been a lonely road, because I never met anyone coming the other way.”

Stevenson again: “Neither political party has a monopoly of virtue or of rascality.”

There are inspiring speeches, rasping voices like that of Al Smith who sounded as if he’d be more at home calling a title fight, ringing phrases which lodge in the memory (FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”) and pure humbug. There are winners and losers.

The one I like best is by Adlai Stevenson who was not only gracious but amusing in defeat. I wonder if we might hope for this much wry dignity in this coming year, at home or abroad.

“Someone asked me as I came down on the street how I felt and I was reminded of a story that a fellow townsman of ours used to tell -- Abraham Lincoln -- when they asked him how he felt after one unsuccessful election. He said he felt like a little boy who had stubbed his toe in the dark. That he was too old to cry, but it hurt too much to laugh”.

Have a good Easter. Lots of great music here and a couple of dozen Beatle-related essays and much else besides

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