Greatest Hits, by David Cohen (Mākaro Press, 2014), 316 pp., $35
Language can be a weapon, as David Cohen, armed only with his words and phrases, very ably demonstrates in Greatest Hits, an anthology of pieces drawn from a quarter century of media-work. In a Listener review of 2006 he so thoroughly deflates the orange-tinted pretentions of U2 and Bono, the band’s frontman, that it becomes impossible to see the ‘great’ rocker’s performance except through Cohen’s vision of bloated corporate emptiness. In ‘Kingdom of the curdled-milk sheik’, written for the National Business Review in 2009, Cohen’s invitation from Saudi Arabia to participate in a press junket becomes the understated means whereby the freedom-loving proclamations of the kingdom are shown to be just as substantial as a mirage of dairy show-farms on desert sand dunes.
Cohen is a Wellington-based writer, a sometime Guardian and Listener columnist, a correspondent on media affairs for the NBR, a sometime satirist and, that old fashioned term, a mordant wit. If the column is one of the media-styles of our age, then Cohen excels at it, able to tease import from apparent trivia. He has often succeeded at that hardest task, gaining unique revelation from a well-practised interviewee. His idiosyncrasies usually play to his strengths.
Greatest Hits is a fascinating how-to-do-it by which media students could profit – if, in the future, there is journalism as we know it, or practitioners of the profession who haven’t moved to the manipulations of public relations. Cohen’s ability to find a story in his inability to find a story is the true mark of a great journalist. His perceptions are as sharp as an assassin’s stiletto.
Cohen was raised on the New Musical Express School of Reporting, during the mid-1970s heyday of Julie Burchill, Charles Shaar Murray and Tony Parsons, when sea-freighted copies of the paper would arrive in New Zealand months after publication date. Style, not immediacy, was the traded object. Attitude was everything, and Cohen excels at the politics of stance.
He is more measured than the American New Journalists. There are none of the WHAMMMS! of Tom Wolfe or the excesses of Hunter S. Thompson’s Drug-Baroque. Cohen’s various voices are quieter, and more modulated as to audience. Ultimately, one of the fascinating things about Greatest Hits is just how Cohen’s tone is so chameleonic. It is also, one feels, strategic. It’s all about positioning.
In common with the best of his media-exemplars, Cohen’s approach frequently provides the genesis and substance of his filed pieces. His encounter with Kiri Te Kanawa, published in the Evening Post in 1990, is a recounting of cross-purposes where a diva accustomed to hommage meets a journalist who wishes to ask the difficult questions, and who will not give up.
‘There were criticisms, yes – from the press,’ Dame Kiri said pointedly. ‘It’s always the press who are negative. I’m a very positive person.’ She considered this for a moment. ‘I think maybe you should get your act together.’ (p. 203)
Te Kanawa’s porcelain brittleness, her practised ability to not say much, her sense of wounded shoulder-chipped pride, and indeed (and surprisingly) her sense of Slumming in the Colonies, is conveyed unforgettably. It is the most vivid profile of New Zealand’s favourite lyric soprano extant. ‘Kiri’ is journalism as it should be committed.
Cohen also takes on the former prime minister David Lange. Published in the NBR in 2004, ‘Lange was a master of shutting down critics’ is a vivid and enlightening column on accidentally meeting Lange outside a hotel on Waiheke. Cohen slowly circles his subject, one hair-trigger revelation after another, puncturing many of the standard views of the retired statesman in his progress. He reveals an unsuspected and not entirely pleasant side of Lange, one familiar to members of the media but kept from the public by Lange’s habits of profitable litigation. It is an opinion-changing piece.
Cohen is also a more subtle stalker of game. In ‘Kiwiblogger David Farrar’, from the Listener in 2012, he takes on the person and motivations of New Zealand’s most successful right-wing blogger, David Farrar. It is an understated profile of a child who overcame a speech impediment to become a partisan party propagandist. Closely-read, however, it is also a stark revelation of the lonely figure of a rotund media-manipulator trapped in sexually neutered sadness. Register, for instance, the power of ‘um’ in the following:
Farrar has never married or lived with anyone, as it happens, something he puts down to the long hours he keeps and a busy travel schedule … His current status? ‘It’s, um, complicated,’ he says after a moment’s silence … (p. 53)
On the other hand, Cohen does not shy away from blunt-force trauma when required. His review of Colin Hogg’s autobiography The Awful Truth, from the Listener in 1998, is a piece from which Hogg with his over-blown rock-journo histrionics does not escape with dignity:
He has boasted that he is a rebel, a gothic outsider in the tough-guy spirit of British pop-journalist Nick Kent … In fact, by his own admission, the experience has been decidedly more conventional: junkets to foreign cities to check out advance shows … newspaper ‘profiles’ of other performers, hastily typed out on the back of long-distance telephone calls arranged by record company mavens; and truckloads of free albums sent to him over a quarter of a century spent churning out the notices and pocketing the cash. (p. 149)
New Zealand has too few satirists, if we would use the term to convey the ‘truth-telling’ that it should. Satiric wit is something that does not play the game, at least as far as New Zealanders have been taught. Satire is a suspicious art in Aotearoa and we do not do it well. Somehow, satire kicks in the goolies and does a man from behind. It bitches and slanders. Satire has no pretentions. It is too honest for us.
As Cohen demonstrates, in Greatest Hits, he should be ranked as one of best contemporary journalistic satirists, above his only real rival, Steve Braunias, the newspaper columnist and recent author of Mad Men: Inside the weirdest election campaign ever. When Cohen goes for the jugular, he is merciless. ‘Kiri’, for example, should be anthologised and anthologised frequently. ‘Lange was a master of shutting down critics’ provides the material of history. Braunias, on the other hand, aims too frequently and too easily at bystanders and sitting ducks: the happy-clappy Greenies with a ukulele, and the 15 people lost in a rented venue for an ACT Party meeting.
The major problem of Greatest Hits is its policy of inclusion. The commentaries on the TV personalities Paul Henry and the late Paul Holmes, in the book’s final section, foreground the kind of by-numbers journalism that pays the plumber. We don’t begrudge Cohen the writing or the payment; we do however begrudge our time and the recycling of writing well past its use-by date. Omission is a great art too.
DAVID HERKT is an Auckland-based writer. He has worked as a TV director and researcher. His first poetry book Satires won the Australian Wesley Michel Wright Poetry Prize in 1989. His 3-part TV series High Times: The New Zealand drug experience won the New Zealand Film and Television Best Series award in 2006.