Saturday, March 30, 2013

Bertolt Brecht: Genius - or Misogynist Fraud?

That Bertold Brecht was a rat has been known for years. Even in the 1960s and 1970s when his word was law - when his photo beamed slyly down over any respectable Literary Manager's desk and drama students used to puzzle over 'alienation' - there was a widely acknowledged dodgy side to him. Everyone knew that He Who Says Yes was ripped off from Arthur Waley, that Happy End was mostly written by others, that Puntila was swiped from its author, a kindly Finnish lady who had very unwisely given Brecht the play to read while sheltering him and his entourage at her own expense in the early years of World War II. ...

So begins Nicholas Wright's Independent review of John Fuegi's 1994 book The Life and Lies of Bertold Brecht. Interesting, don't you think? With apologists like that, who needs enemies? The basic point of Wright's review appears to be that none of these things really matter very much. Fuegi's charges of systematic, unacknowledged plagiarism of his various collaborators' original compositions simply amount to "a matter-of-fact description of the way Brecht worked."

Wright's use of jaunty terms such as "ripped off" and "swiped" give a jolly tone to the whole procedure which also conspires to rob it of any sting. Handel "ripped off" other composers, too, and no-one seriously blames him for it. When taxed with his thefts of others' material, he replied that his competitors didn't know what to do with their own musical ideas.

Fuegi's book is also (apparently) riddled with errors, according to such long-time Brecht disciples and translators as John Willetts (witness his January 1995 letter in the New York Review of Books where he calls it "a book whose structure is wormeaten with at least 450 ... mistakes and repetitions ... Be a little less trusting, prod this book’s vast assemblage of notes, and it crumbles.")

Michael Meyer, whose review of Fuegi Willetts was reacting to, replied as follows to his various critics:

I am grateful to Ronald Speirs, John Willett, and Ian Strasfogel for pointing out these additional errors. But Fuegi’s main thesis, that many of Brecht’s best-known works owed much to collaborators whom he failed to acknowledge and repeatedly swindled, seems to remain valid, much as Brecht’s disciples would have it otherwise.
- Michael Meyer, "Giving the Devil His Due" New York Review of Books (1994)

John Fuegi: Brecht & Co. (1994)]

I have to say that one of the most interesting things about Fuegi's book, which I've now finally got around to reading almost twenty years after it first appeared is the almost hysterical over-reactions it seems to have provoked in reviewers.

Probably the funniest of all is this article in that most objective of leftist periodicals Workers' Liberty, where the author first summarises Fuegi's devastating list of charges against Brecht, then concludes:

However, on balance I don’t believe Brecht was a talentless, Svengali figure whose abuse of power was akin to a Hitler or a Stalin. Work like The Seven Deadly Sins of the Petty Bourgeoisie and Days of the Commune and poems like The Song of the Class Enemy and Questions from a Worker Who Reads are the work of a very gifted writer who contributed enormously to theatre theory and practice.
- Peter Burton, "Was Brecht a misogynist and fraudster" Workers' Liberty (2010)

I love that "on balance." Not even Fuegi denies Brecht's basic brilliance as a poet, and even as a writer of individual scenes in plays. What he is claiming - with almost a superfluity of evidence - is that Brecht never finished a play in the whole of his working life, and that this inability grew more rather than less pronounced as his career progressed. Denying a charge which has not been made does seem to be the basic technique of Fuegi's critics, then and now.

Returning to Nicholas Wright's Independent review, the twists and turns he is forced to go through to discredit Fuegi's mountain of evidence have to be read to be believed:

Fuegi wrote two previous books about Brecht, both perfectly respectful and orthodox, and even went to the trouble of founding something called the International Brecht Society. He seems since then to have performed one of those Oedipal flip-flops - common to disillusioned acolytes - which turn the father-figure into a monster and his women into stainless victims (echoes here of Jeffrey Masson's In the Freud Archive).

Alas, as most of you no doubt know, In the Freud Archive[s] is actually the title of a 1984 book by Janet Malcolm which is (partially) concerned with Jeffrey Masson's revisionist The Assault on Truth: Freud’s Suppression of the Seduction Theory. Masson subsequently - unsuccessfully - sued her for libel over the book. But what all this has to do with Brecht is anybody's guess.

Is the point supposed to be that anyone who has ever written "respectfully" about a literary figure's work is thereby debarred from subsequent criticism of that person's private and professional life? Or is that too absurd a stance even for Wright? Perhaps another way to read it would be as a general statement about "Oedipal flip-flops." Because Fuegi was once "respectful and orthodox: it therefore follows (the argument seems to go) that he has a need to turn "the father-figure into a monster and his women into stainless victims."

But was he a monster? And were they stainless victims? I doubt Fuegi would endorse either term, but he certainly does his best to rehabilitate the reputations of some very unfairly denigrated writers whose work was subsumed under the "Brecht" label, often actively against their will, and never with their full consent. Nor - it seems - have their heirs ever received any adequate acknowledgment (let alone a fair share of the royalties) in posthumous editions of Brecht's "collected works."

Wright continues:
... the result is that he confuses his two main claims. The first is that Hauptmann, Berlau and Steffin played a crucial role in writing the plays, the second that they were swindled out of the credit and money due to them. Fuegi, for whom Brecht can do no right, treats both accusations as though they were equally heinous. But the first is simply a matter-of-fact description of the way Brecht worked.

Brecht the playwright died young, somewhere in his early twenties, during the hideous writer's block which hit him between the completion of Jungle of Cities and Man is Man. After that, he remained a great poet and became a great director. His vision of theatre was unimpaired, he was a fabulous wordsmith and he knew how to shock. But sitting alone in a room and writing - from start to finish - a play he actually believed in was now beyond him, and would remain so for the rest of his life.

This happens to most playwrights sooner or later. Some give up cheerfully, some creep away into a hole, some grit their teeth and carry on churning out rubbish. Brecht's response - to create a studio where he could animate plays to be written via a process of challenge, inspiration, mutual criticism - seems to me to be not at all (as Fuegi supposes) a proof of his failure as man and writer. On the contrary: it is one of the most interesting things he did.
- Nicholas Wright, "Owing to the women: The Life and Lies of Bertold Brecht - John Fuegi" The Independent (1994)

This is great stuff. I particularly love that phrase about the "hideous writer's block" which afflicted poor Bertolt somewhere "between the completion of Jungle of Cities [c.1923-24] and Man is Man [1926]." In other words, according to Wright's own chronology, the only time he could actually be described as a working playwright was up to the age of 25, by which time he had "completed" Baal and Drums in the Night - pretty slight works on which to base a reputation. By his mid-twenties, then, a spent force in writing terms, he decided to "create a studio where he could animate plays to be written via a process of challenge, inspiration, mutual criticism" - a little like Walt Disney's dream factory in Hollywood, perhaps?

The trouble with this clever piece of face-saving is that Baal, Drums in the Night and In the Jungle of Cities are no more "original" than any of his subsequent works. Of course there is writing by Bertolt Brecht in each of them. But how much? And was he any more capable of completing a play on his own before the "great block" than he was afterwards? It would appear not, according to Fuegi's account, at least (and it's noticeable how much time is spent dwelling on trivial misquotations and mis-weighting of evidence by his denigrators - how little on the cumulative weight of his charges).

Wright's claim that "he remained a great poet and became a great director" requires a little more scrutiny. No-one denies Brecht's power as a poet. As poem after poem has to be corralled off as the work of Elisabeth Hauptmann, Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau, though, one begins to realise how powerful a "manner" can be. None of these women seems to have had any difficulty in producing "Brecht" to order. And when one adds in the innumerable plagiarisms from Villon, Kipling and Arthur Waley's translations from the Chinese committed by all the members of his "studio," then I think it's time to stop being quite so blithe about the whole thing.

What is "Brecht"? The question becomes increasingly legitimate and compelling as Fuegi's book (and BB's career) continues. In the final analysis, it is hard to see "Brecht" as much more than a tradename - something analogous to "Warner Brothers," "MGM" - or even "Marvel Comics."

There's no real need for any of us to concern ourselves with the matter further, though, according to Bob Wake's review of Fuegi's work on the website Culture Vulture (subtitled "choices for the congnoscenti"). He rounds off his piece by stating that:
Bertolt Brecht's position in the pantheon of 20th century literary giants appears secure as the millennium approaches. His stature is such that no single biography, whether hagiographic or insulting, is going to be the last word on his life and art. John Fuegi's Brecht and Company is worth no one's time. Virtually any other Brecht biography is preferable ...
- Bob Wake, "Brecht and Company" Culture Vulture (n.d.)

Once again, with disciples like that, who needs ... Wake's funniest passage is where he says: "Vilifying Brecht as a plagiarist is by no means new. All Brecht biographers touch on the well-known accusations, such as uncredited passages from the poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud that show up in the 1927 play, Jungle of Cities." He doesn't mention that the reason these accusations are so "well-known" is because they happen to be true. Nor does he add that the same charges can be substantiated for Brecht's earliest play Baal. He goes on:

Fuegi compounds the old charges by adding scores of new ones and expanding Brecht's misdeeds to previously unimagined dimensions. We're told that manuscripts in Elisabeth Hauptmann's handwriting (or her "strike pattern" on typewritten texts) prove that she was responsible for 80 to 90% of the script for The Threepenny Opera. Brecht's sole contribution to the play, according to Fuegi, was writing the lyrics for "Mack the Knife" and incorporating a few "nips and tucks" to the overall design of the script and production.

Leaving aside that this is an inaccurate summary of the evidence Fuegi presents (in fact he is himself unconvinced by the reliance of earlier critics on handwriting and "strike patterns", preferring to supplement this with correspondence and witness testimony), the curious thing here is that Wake quotes these claims of Fuegi's as if they were self-refuting. They're "by no means new," he tells us. Nor does he go on to talk of the outrageous royalties claims made by Brecht on the profits of the opera, far ahead of those allotted to his avowed, legitimate collaborators Hauptmann and Kurt Weill.

    Eugen Berthold Friedrich Brecht (1898–1956)

  1. Brecht, Bertolt. Der Gute Mensch von Sezuan. 1955. Ed. Margaret Mare. 1960. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965.

  2. Brecht, Bertolt. Leben des Galilei. Ed. H. F. Brookes & C. E. Fraenkel. 1975. Heinemann German Texts. London: Heinemann, 1958.

  3. Brecht, Bertolt. The Life of Galileo. 1955. Trans. Desmond I. Vesey. 1960. A Methuen Modern Play. London: Eyre Methuen, 1978.

  4. Brecht, Bertolt. The Caucasian Chalk Circle. 1955. Trans. James & Tania Stern, with W. H. Auden. 1960. Methuen Student Edition. Ed. Hugh Rorrison. 1984. London: Methuen Drama, 1991.

  5. Brecht, Bertolt. The Messingkauf Dialogues. 1963. Trans. John Willett. 1965. London: Eyre Methuen, 1971.

  6. Brecht, Bertolt. Mother Courage and Her Children: A Chronicle of the Thirty Years War. 1949. Trans. Eric Bentley. 1962. A Methuen Modern Play. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.

  7. Brecht, Bertolt. Parables for the Theatre. Two Plays: The Good Woman of Setzuan / The Caucasian Chalk Circle. 1949 & 1953. Trans. Eric Bentley. 1948. Penguin Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

  8. Brecht, Bertolt. Plays. Volume 1: The Caucasian Chalk Circle; The Threepenny Opera; The Trial of Lucullus; The Life of Galileo. 1960. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965.

  9. Brecht, Bertolt. Collected Plays. Volume 1: 1918-1923. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1970.

  10. Brecht, Bertolt. Collected Plays. Volume 5: Life of Galileo; The Trial of Lucullus; Mother Courage and Her Children. Ed. Ralph Manheim & John Willett. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

  11. Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Trans. John Willett. 1964. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1965.

  12. Brecht, Bertolt. Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition. Trans. H. R. Hays. 1947. New York: Grove Press / London: Evergreen Books, 1959.

  13. Brecht, Bertolt. Poems 1913-1956. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim, with Erich Fried. 1976. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.

  14. Brecht, Bertolt. Die Hauspostille / Manual of Piety: A Bilingual Edition. 1927. Trans. Eric Bentley. Ed. Hugo Schmidt. New York: Grove Press, 1966.

  15. Brecht, Bertolt. Threepenny Novel. 1934. Trans. Desmond I. Vesey. Verses trans. Christopher Isherwood. 1937. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976.

  16. Brecht, Bertolt. Collected Short Stories. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim. Trans. Yvonne kapp, Hugh Rorrison & Antony Tatlow. 1983. London: Minerva, 1992.

  17. Brecht, Bertolt. Diaries 1920-1922. Ed. Herta Ramthun. 1975. Trans. John Willett. London: Eyre Methuen, 1979.

  18. Brecht, Bertolt. Journals 1934-1955. 1973. Ed. John Willett. Trans. Hugh Rorrison. Brecht's Plays, Poetry and Prose. Ed. John Willett & Ralph Manheim. Methuen London. London: Reed Consumer Books Ltd., 1993.

  19. Fuegi, John. The Life and Lies of Bertolt Brecht. 1994. Flamingo. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

  20. Lyon, James K. Bertolt Brecht in America. 1980. London: Methuen, 1982.

I have to say that I'm no keener to have Brecht exposed as a liar and a trickster than the rest of these people. As you can see from the list above, I've devoted a great deal of time and trouble to poring over the Master's works, early and late, and it's no great pleasure to find out just how much of an opportunist he really was.

Fuegi does try to put a brave face on it in passages such as this:
There can be no serious doubt that right up until his death, Brecht's charmed circle was a place where greatness gathered and where the lightning of extraordinary creativity very frequently struck. [p.209]

But it rings a little hollow, one must admit. I don't think this syndicate approach is quite what we mean by a "great writer," even in a medium as necessarily collaborative as the theatre. At the very least it's important to know how the process operated, whether or not we accept Brecht's contention that this "must have been" how Shakespeare, too, operated to produce the body of work now ascribed to him.

At the very least Fuegi's book deserves a hearing. I've seen little in the critical reactions to it to challenge seriously his major claims. Read his book. See for yourself.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Three Cool Launches

Thérèse Lloyd: Other Animals (Wellington: VUP, 2013)
[Image: "Ursus Arctos," by Jane Dodd]

So Bronwyn and I flew down to Wellington last week for the long-awaited launch of her sister Thérèse Lloyd's first full-length book of poems, Other Animals - published by Victoria University Press, and launched by her long-time friend and mentor, poet Bernadette Hall.

[Thérèse & Bernadette waiting to speak]

One of the very first publications from Pania Press, back in 2006, was a chapbook of Thérèse's poems entitled many things happened, so I think it's safe to say that we've been supporters of her work for quite a long time now.

[VUP managing director Fergus Barrowman introduces the book]

There's a dark, haunting quality to her poetry which seems to me quite inimitable. I will admit that it scares me at times, but never in a gratuitous, "Gothic" kind of way - the things that preoccupy Thérèse are the things that should be worrying all of us: environmental catastrophe, social collapse, the chaos and alienation of modern life.

[The crowd in Unity Books]

So, while this was an very joyful occasion - so many friends and well-wishers grouped in one venue I've seldom seen before, while the book positively flew off the shelves! - the poems we were celebrating are anything but "safe." In fact, as she read, I suddenly felt as if a kind of ventriloquism was taking place: the poems sounded as if they had been crafted in some other language, by Rilke or Paul Celan, then somehow transmuted back into English. It was quite uncanny.

[Thérèse signing books]

I really recommend this book. Judging by the audience reaction on the night, it seems to have hit a nerve. Nor do I believe that there's anything flash-in-the-pan about Thérèse's poetry. She's taken the trouble to think it through and arrange the contents with consummate care, and I think you'll agree that it's been worth the effort. We couldn't be happier with her success.

Tessa Laird: Chupacabra Candelabra
[Auckland: Melanie Rogers Gallery (13 Feb-9 March, 2013)]

About a month ago now, we drove over to Ponsonby one fine evening to attend the opening of Tessa Laird's new show in the window of Melanie Rogers Gallery (you can see the trees of Jervois Road reflected in the glass in the picture above). Pania Press is intending to publish a catalogue of the exhibition at some point in the near future, so it was with a certain trepidation that we awaited our first sight of Tessa's strange new set of works.

[Chupacabra Candelabra (1)]

The show is called "Chupacabra Candelabra," and consists of a set of ceramic "books" arranged in alternation with various brightly coloured candlesticks, on five beautiful pink cloud-shaped shelves. Tessa's a writer as well as an artist, and the works she's created for this show build on her wonderful 2012 Objectspace exhibition Reading Room, with Peter Lange.

[Chupacabra Candelabra (2)]

This time the books are mostly South and Central American in inspiration. There are Mayan and Mexican and Aztec motifs all jumbled together in syncretist profusion. I say "profusion" rather than "confusion" because there's a underlying spirit of joyous intensity which seems to combine all these various directions in her work into one colourful whole.

And it's perhaps worth remembering, when you look at this magnificent pyramid of clay books, that the Maya themselves used Toltec motifs in some of their art - and in the post-classic period, even Aztec influences began to appear in the few surviving works of art (mostly codices) from that era ...

Kirstin Carlin / Tessa Laird / Ruth Thomas-Edmond
[Auckland: Melanie Rogers Gallery (13 Feb-9 March, 2013)]

Renee Bevan: The World is a Giant Pearl
(Photograph: Caryline Boreham)

Last (but not least), a few days before we attended the opening of Tessa's show, we went to Renee Bevan's artist talk - with curator Karl Chitham - for her new show "Stream of Thoughts" at the Gus Fisher Gallery, on Saturday 9th February.

I guess what interested me most about it - and what made me think that it might make a nice triad with Thérèse and Tessa - was the largely conceptual nature of the whole show. Renee is a jeweller, but her jewellery practice is beginning to intersect with an almost Duchampian playfulness and wit.

Renee Bevan: A Whole Year's Work
(Photograph: Caryline Boreham)

This image, for instance, takes its significance from the fact that the powder being poured over Renee's head consists, in fact, of the ashes of a whole series of her own visual diaries which she's discarded and burnt.

Renee Bevan: Parting Breath (2012)
(Photograph: Caryline Boreham)

This one, "parting breath," was originally intended to preserve the remnants of her own breath in a collapsed balloon. The first attempt broke while it was being electroplated, though, so this substitute is coloured black in mourning for its lost progenitor.

Renee Bevan: Wearing Myself as a Bracelet (2012)
(Photograph: Caryline Boreham)

This last one, "wearing myself," is perhaps the one which best expresses the spirit of the whole show. Draping herself around her partner as a human necklace, or making a velcro brooch which literally "attaches" you to other people, goes a bit beyond satirical celebration of the ephemeral nature of things. Renee's art is all about emotion, connection, cherishing. The subtlety and humour in her show shouldn't be allowed to distract you from the depth of her convictions on the matter.

I suppose, finally, that the reason I like these three shows so much is that they seem to me to be saying many of the same things in their very different ways. It's not so much hope they offer us as companionship. "There never really was much hope," as Gandalf tells Pippin when things are at their worst in the middle film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: "Just a fool's hope."

Even a fool's hope is better than none, though. Renee, Tessa and Thérèse may not be able to set things right for us once and for all - the crooked made straight, the rough places smooth (Luke 3: 5) - but the wit and compassion they show in these three bodies of work at least show us that they're not going to allow us to give in to despair too easily.

They've given us three gifts, and I for one would like to express my gratitude to all of them.

Postscript (Friday, 15th March):

We've just heard that Tazey's book has entered the official Nielsen Weekly Bestsellers List (for the week ending 9th March) at Number One! There are three categories: NZ Fiction for Adults; NZ Non-fiction for Adults & NZ Children & Teens (as well as international listings for each). Other Animals is at the top of the first list, ahead of titles by Janet Frame, Witi Ihimaera and Fiona Kidman. Fantastic! It sure must have hit a nerve ...
Nielsen Weekly Bestsellers List: week ending 9 March 2013
The Bestseller Charts represent the bestselling books in New Zealand for the week up to the date given. The Bestseller Charts are compiled by Nielsen BookScan and comprise data supplied from the New Zealand panel of participating booksellers. Please note these charts are subject to copyright and may not be reproduced. Books are categorised according to country of publication.

& check out Hamesh Wyatt's review in the Otago Daily Times Online:
Therese Lloyd's poems have appeared in a number of places. Other Animals is her debut collection of poems. Lloyd certainly has spark. Like Smither, her poems are simple, spare and beautiful. But rather than hitting on the soft things, Lloyd develops a lyrical pathway through some thorny issues.

She uses everyday lives in her poems. People rummage through rubbish and compost. Mice, rats and flies make regular appearances in these 38 short poems.

'Proof'': ...You trapped the mouse in the wall by nailing a
square over the hole. For days afterwards I thought I heard
it desperately scraping, its claws worn down to stumps. As we
slept cramp seized your leg. You leapt out of bed clutching
your thigh. You looked enormous in the strange morning half-
light. The way things morph - shapes forming imagined shapes
- I thought I saw the mouse squeezing through a gap and you
reaching down to carefully, slowly, crush him in your hands.

It is impossible not to enjoy this new work from the get-go. Lloyd adds bile, bite and a few surprise twists. She tells us what is on her mind. Other Animals will intoxicate the reader.

... She has produced a little book that is watchful, armed with warning and observations of people who are sometimes totally out of their depth. I like how this is new and exciting.

Cool bikkies, eh?

& now there's another great review (by Siobhan Harvey) on Beattie's Book Blog (2/4/13) ...

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Fun with Fracking

Josh Fox: Gasland (2010)

Every now and then you have to stand up and be counted, no matter how politically powerless you may feel.

The other day Bronwyn and I finally nerved ourselves up to get out that documentary Gasland which had been staring at us from the shelves of our local video shop for the past year or so. A friend of ours had said that she couldn't sleep after watching it, and that it made her so mad that she wasn't sure whether she wanted to cry or kill someone.

Sounds like a real hoot, doesn't it? And so it proved. As the film made its quiet, understated way across vast devastated prairies of natural gas containers, through the kitchens of shell-shocked ranchers who could literally light their drinking water on fire (as they proceeded to demonstrate) - some of whom were already dying from the carcinogens that had been introduced into their water without any warning - down devastated streams festooned with dead animals, we felt as though the end of the world might have come at last.

And - guess what? - it's all perfectly legal! The Bush government passed a bill in 2004 which stated that fracking (short for "hydraulic fracturing") is not subject to clean air and clean water legislation. And why not? Because it wouldn't be tolerated for a moment it it was! Because it's so desperately harmful to the environment - and human health - that if the burden of proof to show that it's safe were ever to be shifted to the industrial giants who use it, they'd all be out of business immediately (not to mention immured in court for the rest of their natural lives). So a very necessary piece of legislation, that one. Dick Cheney's idea. Good ol' Dick.

What's more, these myriad companies, with their innumerable different fracking "recipes", are not required to tell anyone exactly which bizarre and inimical chemicals they've been pumping into rock-seams, because it could be deemed "commercially sensitive information." So if you happen to be dying of cancer from the chemicals from a nearby Natural Gas installation, it's up to you to commission an independent study to find out exactly what they've been releasing into the air and the water near you. They don't have to tell you. Or anyone else.

Then, once you've actually started your lawsuit, chances are they'll settle out of court for an undisclosed sum - plus a commitment on your part never to communicate any details of the case to anyone. Only in America, huh? Free enterprise run mad: the right to poison and kill other people in the pursuit of profit ...

"We've got to make sure that it never happens here," said Bronwyn. "I mean it, Jack. We have to start a petition."

"Are you joking?" I said. "We're already doing it." (Though I didn't know, as I spoke, that it had been going on here for over twenty years).

A couple of nights later, we saw on the television news the present Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, remark with a chuckle that - since she had such a small office - she hadn't yet got around to completing the large-scale report on the matter which she undertook last year.

What she has said so far, though, in advance of the full report, is that she sees no need for a moratorium but instead recommends "tighter controls" on the practice. With environmental watchdogs like that, who needs corporate lawyers? She certainly couldn't be accused of staying up nights worrying about it.

Oh, she did also comment, in passing, that "she couldn't rule out the possibility fracking could cause large earthquakes, like the series of tremors that destroyed much of Christchurch over 2010 and 2011."

Correct me if I'm wrong - as I often am - but doesn't that seem rather a casual tone to take on a matter of such seriousness? "Whether fracking is acceptable in a given location will depend on a number of variables, including the location characteristics, the competency of the explorer, the way wastewater is disposed of and whether there is potential for aquifer contamination," states Gary Taylor of the Environmental Defence Society.

Quite so. But if no-one's actually investigating those things at all seriously (and who would, in a John-Key-led administration?), and if there's even a minuscule risk that the practice might have unforeseen long-term effects on the environment, such as seismic instability, as well as all the already well-known side-effects such as watertable contamination, air pollution, compromised health, etc. etc., wouldn't it be quite a good idea to check it out sometime soon? Just why is Jan Wright's office so small, anyway? And shouldn't there be a few other studies going on somewhere else, as well?

Now I do understand that fracking is not the only environmental nightmare that besets us. I also understand that proponents of even more obscene affronts to human existence such as nuclear fission can use opposition to fracking to argue for their own filthy ends. Nor am I blind to the fact that everyone who uses energy (as I'm doing right now by typing on this keyboard) has to get it from somewhere, from some large-scale industrial process which is bound to be ecologically disruptive at least some of the time.

As I watched Josh Fox's film, though, and saw the squad of fakes who'd been flown in to a Congressional Committee hearing on the subject all testifying one after the other that there was no evidence of adverse effects from fracking, and that all the cases to date which had been reported over the many states that allow it had already been investigated and found to be without substance, I was reminded of those Big Tobacco executives who used to testify routinely to the lack of evidence for adverse health effects from smoking cigarettes (as shown memorably in that old Al Pacino / Russell Crowe movie The Insider). Their lies were cut from the same cloth: not even intended to be believed by anyone, but simply stated in order to put them on the record for the purpose of kickstarting future avalanches of bureaucratic delay and confusion.

Michael Mann, dir.: The Insider (1999)

If there's ever a Nuremberg trial for crimes against the environment, I fear that these guys and their bosses may find that simple obedience to orders is not an acceptable excuse. And can anyone seriously doubt that these industrialists - together with the chemists and lawyers and politicians they employ - are all equally culpable of conniving at the systematic degradation of the air and water all of us depend on for life?

Personally , I don't want to see any more laughing and kidding around at press conferences on the subject in future. It's not particularly funny that no resources are being put into investigating it here, just as virtually none have been allotted to checking up on it in the USA.

Since our present government apparently regards any enquiry into their activities which doesn't actually convict them of criminal misconduct and recommend immediate prosecution as a clear green light (the Sky City Convention Centre affair, for example - not exactly a whitewash for the National party, but that's how they took it - or the slew of court cases over the Maori Council's attempts to delay their asset-sales: again, not exactly adding up to a clean bill of health), I'd suggest that perhaps the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment might need to consider resignation if the point of the job is really to rubberstamp pre-formulated business decisions. Even she says our present government have "dropped the ball" on the environment ...

Oh, and by the way, the industrialists involved have informed us that there are "many errors" in the Gasland film:
Energy in Depth (EiD), launched by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, has created a web page with a list of claimed factual inaccuracies in the documentary, and produced an associated film titled TruthLand. In response to the EID's list of claimed factual inaccuracies, the Gasland website offers a rebuttal.
As so often on these occasions, it's the Defence position that causes more genuine disquiet than the Prosecution. All they appear to have been able to come up with is the statement that gas leaks from deposits hundreds of feet below couldn't possible have made their way up through so many impermeable strata to contaminate ground water - a claim now denied by a "2011 study by Duke University." Oh, and an extended rigmarole about the precise "distinction between biogenic and thermogenic gas." The film, it seems, confuses the two. However:
Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, D. C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University ... has said that drilling and hydraulic fracturing can liberate biogenic natural gas into a fresh water aquifer. That is, just because gas is biogenic does not necessarily indicate that it reached a well by natural means.
Obviously I can't venture any opinion on such technical matters, but if that's really the best they've got, against the compelling moonscapes of devastated horror exhibited by the film, then I have to conclude that we really are in trouble here.

So, sorry, our present inertia and tacit tolerance of fracking as somehow superior to stripmining or offshore oil drilling is no longer an acceptable position. This is actually something we might still be able to do something about. Writing to your MP (unless it's John Key), or - better still - to Dr. Jan Wright might be a good start, though.

So what if Straterra says that "fracking in New Zealand is nothing like how this technology is portrayed in Gasland"? What's next - an endorsement from Ken Ring? Don't you "industry spokespeople" understand that it simply isn't enough to say that the film hasn't proved every one of its devastating claims? The point is that if any of them are true, then it's time to stop.

This is not just our future, but our children's children's children's future. Some of the damage done now can never be undone. We have to know that it's safe before it's allowed to proceed. And - guess what? - I suspect that even our own "clean green" variety is going to turn out to be a colossal can of worms before we're through.