Joe Bennett: Knickers to prejudice

Joe BennettJust one pair of Joe Bennett’s inspirational underpants remain. Appropriately, they’ve been retired from their high-stress lifestyle and retired to become a plaything for the dog.

Bennett’s book - Where underpants come from traces a five-pack of your standard $8.59 man-skin grundies and a flash “special occasions” pair of Authentics, from The Warehouse in Eastgate, to the factories and cotton fields of China.

The book is about knickers, but also about prejudice crumbling away. I find this out with the help of beer and Latin. The beer comes courtesy of the happy people at Lyttelton’s Lava Bar, the Latin via Bennett’s childhood memory of his mother’s handwriting.


Aeneid coverOne of the very few books in the house he grew up in contained a line of Latin quoted from Virgil’s Aeneid: timeo danaos et dona ferente.

Literally I fear a Greek, (but I fear him) even more with a gift.
It was all done in five words by Virgil. It’s wonderfully compressed, and in my mother’s hand the line was underlined and on the side, with an exclamation mark, was something like the word ‘lovely’. I sensed exactly that compression. It couldn’t have been put more succinctly, more neatly.
It was sort of like a revelation from her past – it must’ve been one of her old schoolbooks or something, I became very aware of a sense of aesthetic rightness – that it should be put that way and that way only and that is what matters. So I am a chronic re-writer. It’s never finished - it’s only ever abandoned.

Latin and a love of reading gave Bennett the technique to be successful he says.

If you read Clive James’s, Unreliable Memoirs, it’s a model of comic prose technique. You can analyse them. There’s about five essential techniques he uses to raise a laugh and he uses them in a model manner. That sort of analysis, which any engineer would be happy to have in their profession, to read the literature on it, people don’t want it. They want to go straight in and do funny writing – it’s about as funny as a wart on your arse.

Latin gave me a sense of how English worked that I couldn’t get from studying English. It remains with me. Most of the Latin’s dropped away, but the skeleton is still there, he says. It also made him a chronicre-writer.

Writing a disappearing act

If people say it reads very easily, it must have been fun to write, I get a lovely pleasure out of it because I’ve sweated blood over it. Like a tightrope walker, you’ve got to make it look exquisitely easy. Your job is to disappear. If you notice the writer, if he’s posing and squirming then he’s not done his job. Dr Johnson was very good on style, he said: ‘any phrase of which you’re particularly proud – cross it out’. There’s a certain aesthetic sense that you’ve got to have, you can’t teach, but beyond that it’s just sweat.

Sweat he did, though more from humidity than any sense of the book being a chore. It’s obvious from the minute you pick it up that Bennett had an absolute ripper of a time in China.

I hadn’t expected to enjoy it – I thought it would be a process of endurance. Within a few days I was fascinated by it. The book is less about underpants than prejudice tumbling away, and learning an awful lot about the history of all China, from 2500BC to Mao – and nothing afterwards. What everyone knows, or vaguely knows, about China is Mao and post Mao. The stuff leading up to Mao explains Mao – and Mao was nothing new in China. He was another emperor. He duly went mad with power.

Rejuvenating journey

The journey took years off him.

It’s a long time since I’ve travelled non-linguistically. It was a pleasure to do so again. I felt younger. I used to travel a lot and it was nice to be surprised by novelty again – a rejuvenating experience.

A memorable scene in the book details Bennett trying to use that most frightening of eastern perils – chopsticks. After spreading his food far and wide, to the amusement of fellow diners, one patron came over and helped him master the tricky technique. That would never happen in New Zealand, he says.

Switch it round. If one solitary, Chinese guy came in here tonight, aged 50, and orders a meal – and this is a very friendly restaurant – how many people is he going to know when he leaves? The waitress.

The incident was one of many that made him aware of how little he –and most New Zealanders – appreciated one of the oldest civilisations on earth.

I became aware of that almost inexplicable gulf between east and west which remains despite the fact we’re half a day from China. If we left this restaurant now and got on a plane we could be in China for breakfast. And yet there is this radical gulf in thinking, in attitude, in understanding and that has existed forever. In Shakespeare’s day Cathay was as far away as you could go, it was always a figure of mythology really. From Marco Polo on it was east is east and west is west.
Neither side has ever really understood the other and if anything the Chinese are understanding us a little better now than we are understanding them.

Bennett says he’s not a journo – he’s too scared of giving offense he says – but the tracing of the underpants gave him a “remorseless” path to follow.

If you land in Shanghai and say which way will I go, you’ll take the path of least resistance and end up at the Great Wall or something equally tedious. I’ve never been a tourist. You won’t put yourself in situations that will surprise you. Having to follow underpants took me to places that I would otherwise never have visited; to a reality I wouldn’t have otherwise found. I had no choice in the next stage.

The books that built Joe Bennett

Bennett has a love for reading and it began at an early age with dinosaurs.

I first remember being interested in dinosaur books. We didn’t have many books in the house – we were a literate family, my mother used to get library books. Cricket was my abiding passion. Fortunately the literature of cricket is very good – a lot of literate people like cricket and have written about it. I collected cricket books with a passion – then sold them all when I was at university for drinking money.
I had a really good collection – I had W. G. Grace’s autobiography - autographed … I catalogued them; I had about 300 to 400 books.
Cricket has been well served by writers – he reels off an eye-watering list of statistics, and favourite titles, particularly A. A. Thomspon’s Pavilioned in Splendour, and Denzil Batchelor.
I want the poetic ones, with the broader vision who know it’s only a game and see it as a panopoly of human behaviour – they were the ones who got in.

Abandoned: Robinson Crusoe

Other types of reading came later:

There was one non-dinosaur, non cricket book that I was given by grandparents I think, a very small print Robinson Crusoe and it represented all books. It was so big, and the print was so small that I didn’t read it until I was about 15. I was given it when I was about seven. It sat on the wall like a reproach…

A good English teacher started “throwing the literary heavyweights” in his direction. Bennett says he was immediately taken by Shakespeare, especially King Lear and Twelfth Night. Poets? Philip Larkin hit him “like a knee in the balls”, he was “ridiculously fond” of Shelley for a time. Evelyn Waugh was “hugely influential” and A-level French introduced him to Camus’s The outsider L’ Etranger, a book he has never read in English. He went on to read English at university, and to this day “doesn’t feel complete without a book in hand.”

Fear and loathing in those pages …

Reading is clearly a passion but libraries he loathes.

I desperately want them to exist; I never use them because I cannot abide having a book in my hand that I know has to go back. It’s like owing money – I loathe owing money, I feel uncomfortable owing money; I want to pay it now. Pay it now! Absolutely hate it … and it’s exactly the same with library books.

He doesn’t even want a library book in his house:

The date of its return is hanging over me … it’s something to do with duty or whatever … I can’t relax with it. I own my books. I used to keep every single book and read right through to the end – even if I didn’t like it. Now I give a book two pages – and it’s style not content that matters to me now – if the writer doesn’t know their stuff I think stuff it – life’s too short.

A writing career

We move our discussion towards what it’s like to be a writer in New Zealand – books are still "remarkably cheap", he says.

It’s tough to make money. Very few people write professionally in New Zealand unless they can be published overseas.

Most NZ writers supplement income one way or the other – Bennett is a “hired monkey” - a speaker and an MC. This keeps writers honest, he says.

I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I disapprove of literary grants, I disapprove of Creative New Zealand giving people to write books. Perhaps occasionally on subjects that no-one’s going to buy that do have a worthy point, but paying someone to write a novel, no. I can’t remember a good novel I’ve read that says thanks Creative New Zealand on the front.
Peter Cook has a lovely line: whenever anyone says to him at a party I’m writing a novel he says: Really? Neither am I.

Honesty, voodoo revenge and Bill Hammond’s moleskins

Bennett does read work people give him he says, telling them he’ll be “absolutely honest” about their writing.

Most people say fire away. I’m not prepared to lie and I ruthlessly pull it apart and then I don’t hear back from them. They’re quietly sticking pins into a wax doll.
The one ingredient that people forget, or are ignorant of, is that it’s a matter of technique. Everyone assumes that because they can write a letter, more or less, that they can write. The don’t think because they’ve done woodwork course they can make a Chippendale cabinet, but they do imagine that because they’ve done School Cert English they can write a novel.

It’s a life lesson Bennett learned - and I have no reason to think this is made up – after a month spent mixing mortar with a “brilliant” one-legged cockney bricklayer. One day he was given the chance to see if he could lay the bricks – a back wall needed building. He leapt at the chance.

I spent all day on it. He’d just drunk all day and taken the piss. He came up and pushed it over, adding ‘you haven’t learnt a thing, have you?’ I was momentarily hurt - in my heart I knew he’d done the right thing. And it’s that element, that craft, craft, craft, craft, craft – everyone wants to go straight to art, but you’ve got to learn your technique.

Bennett knows the freedom that writing well can bring – his skills have got him to a point where he has complete artistic freedom.

I can do what I like. I’ve been a freelance writer for 10 years now and I’m in a lovely position. I envy no-one.

Our interview ends shortly after artist Bill Hammond arrives wearing moleskins that are a bit short for his tall frame. “I’m still sprouting,” he jokes.

Bill Hammond arrives in moleskins that he says he’s “sprouting out of” and Bennett tells how his grandfather used to catch moles using forceps along the moles digging path – and then he’s off into the night to see a man about a dog – literally.

Where his next journey will take him is yet to be decided, but you can bet it will be fascinating.

August 2008