A journey through NZ's geographic wonderland

by Toby Manhire / 14 July, 2011
Giovanni Tiso's Bat, Bean, Beam is one of those blogs that puts the lie to the notion of a uniformly shouty, short-burst blogosphere.
There has been much rejoicing in the last six months or so about the resurgence of long-form journalism online. And with good reason. Driven by the emergence of the likes of Longreads and longform.org, enabled by new hardware and software to improve the digital reading experience, enhanced by the birth of investigative engines like Propublica and boosted by the online of publication of archived diamonds like this, there is an awful lot of long, smart writing out there, waiting for the perfect rainy Sunday.

What is wrong, however, is to imagine that before this long-form boom, the internet was some monolith of brevity and rage. “Blogosphere” is for the most part a horrible word, but at least it suggests a roundness – not all online writing sits in the seething, staccato mode, whatever the reputation. Web logs are as broad – no, broader – in form and content as the contents of the most eclectic magazine store.

One local example of long, contemplative, intelligent writing is Bat, Bean, Beam: A Weblog on Memory and Technology, the home of Wellington-based writer and translator Giovanni Tiso. His specialism is, no surprise, memory and technology. He also fashions intellectual essays on the function of cinema, and on the meanings and messages of children’s books, if you like that sort of thing. Splendidly, the site also boasts a poet in residence.

Recently, Tiso has been exploring the 1982 publication This Is New Zealand – American Edition. A celebration of New Zealand and its trade ties with the US, writes Tiso in a post of nearly 2,000 words, “the promotional book ends up resembling an odd kind of tourist guide or history book, whose overarching message is: we can do business together”. This is Tiso’s second critique of the genre: two years ago he penned another fascinating account, of the Asian Edition. He wrote then:

You’ll find as much self-criticism in this type of offering as you do in the average national anthem. Nonetheless, these books generally make very interesting reading, precisely in fact because of their specific lies and obfuscations, as well as the occasional truths that seep through the promotional message.

In one reproduced image from the American Edition, a mustard Honda Civic sits a little awkwardly, empty on the edge of an unsealed road. The caption, all in caps, reads: “New Zealand is nature at its most various and colourful. Hertz offers a fabulous journey through a geographic wonderland on this string of islands poised between the warmth of the Pacific and the ice of Antarctica.”

Which I find strangely, nostalgically moving. I just hope it doesn’t end up on a novelty T-shirt.

This Is New Zealand includes an enthusiastic introduction to the new seat of government, which explains: “New Zealand is an egalitarian society and the Beehive's decor reflects this”.

Tiso writes:

Within this brief, what counts as sophistication is the three, count them, three shades of brown used in the carpeting (‘the coordinated colour scheme creates a restful, earthy effect reminiscent of the land on which the economy of this essentially farming nation rests’), or the fact that in the occasion of state banquets – when Canterbury lamb invariably ends up on the menu – the chef at Bellamy’s will ‘let his imagination run riot’ by serving it with something other than mint sauce.

For Tiso, however, the flow of nostalgia and tenderness for a bygone ethos is tinged with knowledge of what is to come.

The American Edition ... gestures at those egalitarian aspirations to mask the lack of social and political imagination that preluded to the neoliberal turn.

One of the most interesting things about American Edition is, of course, what is left out. A year after the 1981 (on which, by the way, the Redmer Yska piece from the Listener is now online), there is no rugby. Tiso concludes:

Perhaps it’s that to speak of rugby in 1982 without mentioning the Springbok Tour of ‘81 would have been awkward, and the authors wanted to avoid the association. I can only speculate. Be that as it may, what makes books of this sort valuable documents of their time are also the omissions, wilful or otherwise. It’s not the history is wholly absent, it’s that it’s selectively recalled. It’s history in the service of industry and commerce. And that’s far from the least interesting kind.

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