Past, Present, and Future

This COVID-19-induced lockdown has passed surprisingly quickly, days leaching each other away to the point where weekdays become like an endless string of Sundays. Once the restrictions set in, what had been a complicated timetable for the year instantly became a simple one that enabled a lot of writing punctuated by bike riding, series watching, and reading.

There has been considerable commentary about binge watching television series as a way to pass the time, and it has certainly been popular. On the back of that, Amazon shares hit a high of $2,283 which meant owner Jeff Bezos is now worth $US138 billion as the company earns about $11,000 per second. Even in capitalist America that has become almost unseemly with Bezos cast as greedy.

For me, though, an interesting discovery has been the several series I started to watch but bailed out of because they were unconvincing. A cluster of reasons lie behind those exits. Sometimes the story line is unconvincing. Or the characters. Or the actions. Or a combination of all those.

I am not naming any because we all have different views and friends have liked the ones I have not, but a couple that I have liked set some parameters.


The Capture, written by Ben Chanan and mentioned here before, centres on the UK’s modern surveillance culture and the ways in which images may be distorted to serve different ends. A soldier cleared of war crimes is immediately charged with a sexual assault he did not commit, framed by the manipulation of surveillance tape. The fast-tracked woman detective pursuing him gradually works out what is happening, and realises that her own breakthrough case was set up in exactly the same way.

The storyline is compelling and close to believable, the characters convincing, the actions telling and the overall pace terrific.

For me, these are the keys to a successful show that is to be binge-watched. The “slow burn” genre might just be at a disadvantage in this present virus age.

Right now I am watching Below The Surface, a Scandi Noir set in Copenhagen. A terrorist gang takes a group of metro passengers hostage. The anti-terrorist squad is headed by an intelligence officer suffering PTSD as result of himself having been a hostage. The story unfolds with his and the passengers’ lives conveyed in flashback.


It is not perfect (flashback is really hard to do well) but it works, mainly because it brings out the human moments in stories about what are too often dismissed as “ordinary people”. In one episode, for example, a young woman hostage who flunked her paramedic course finds inner strength and saves the life of a fellow hostage injured during a shootout. This is what I look for in stories, visual or written.

Russo and Chances Are

Which brings me to Richard Russo, close to being my most favourite writer. Again thanks to the virus I have just finished his latest, Chances Are, one of the best things I have read in ages. Three mid-sixties male friends return to an island where over forty years earlier they shared a weekend with a female friend, with whom they were all in love, before they went their ways after college. At the end of the weekend the woman leaves without saying goodbye and walks out, apparently, on all their lives.

He unlayers all this through chapters written from the point of view for specific characters. He flashbacks to what happened to all of them as a way to explain both the past and what unfolds over this present weekend.

Russo grew up in America’s industrial rust belt, became an academic in literature, then a full time writer later on and won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, set in the industrial wasteland in which he grew up.

He also wrote Straight Man which remains among the absolute best campus novels, the standard comparison being with Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. For me, the only comparables are Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man, David Lodge’s Changing Places and Jane Smiley’s Moo. All are distinguished by genuine insight and observations on university life with all its small dramas. And they all write brilliantly.


It all looks effortless with Russo. Words, ideas, impressions and understanding stream out so that pages race towards the end which arrives almost by surprise. He is a superb wordsmith. In his four novella work, The Whore’s Child, is a story called Joy Ride. A man recalls an epic road from Maine to the West with his mother when she seemingly left his father. It goes well until they reach Joplin, Missouri (and Russo invariably uses real places) where their car is vandalised, the mother loses it and confronts the manager:

My mother had been looking for somebody to blame, and now
she had her man. By the time she finished, she’d questioned his
intelligence, his management skill, even his parentage. She’d also
expressed her grave reservations about the Holiday Inn chain, the
city of Joplin and the rest of Missouri, which she’d never admired in
theory and liked still less in reality. Moreover, she doubted Mickey
Mantle had ever stepped foot inside the place.

The manager takes it all but the slur on Mickey Mantle, the famous baseball player, who he claimed regularly visited the place. But the manager also protests her criticism of the great state of Missouri, at which the woman takes off again.

What’s with this Missour-uh stuff? That’s an ‘i’ at the end of the word,
right? …How, she wanted to know, could the letter ‘i’ be reasonably
pronounced ‘uh’?

To read this is to be present at the discussion itself, the mark of a genuinely great writer.
Chances Are, though, is more than just the story because it is also a meditation on past, present, and future, wrapped up in the lives of its characters. It is about them but it is also about the times and places in which they live. There are several unflattering reflections on the present American Presidency.

That leads directly to some focused thinking about what is going on around us, another mark of a great writer.

As we emerge from the first stage of this pandemic – and that is most likely what it is, a first stage only – governments everywhere are grappling with reconstruction and that immediately reminds us of what happened after the American Civil War and World War Two when, effectively. “new” worlds had to be constructed.

The global economy and its individual components are wrecked, even if Jeff Bezos and a few others are rejoicing all the way to their private jets. So the essential question for many governments and organisations now is how to decide what to retrieve from the past and what of the future to steer towards.

The New Zealand government is among the first to produce a whole-of-budget package, essentially the first in its “wellbeing’ approach.

Lord of the Rings Queenstown

Trying to maintain business activity is a priority, as is retraining, affordable housing and related social goals. There is welcome new money ($NZ15 million in the first year and $NZ45 million in the second) for screen production that has been decimated by COVID-19. Overseas film investment in New Zealand had been significant and in places like Queenstown that was both financially crucial and technologically stimulating – a firm there now produces the most advanced aerial photography cameras in the world.

There is also $NZ400 million to help revive tourism which is where a real question arises. Can we simply try to recreate what was there before? As in Venice and elsewhere overwhelmed by mass tourism, the answer is almost certainly no.

That flows on to other sectors. In the university world, will we ever again use all those huge lecture theatres in the wake of social distancing and the onset of mass online delivery? In the corporate one, who will willingly go back into open plan offices? And how much will the work-from-home approach carry on after this recent spell?

Lecture Theatres

More significantly, how do we leapfrog from where we were more directly into the future? That is to say, we now have an opportunity to seriously invest in the future. In the New Zealand and Australian cases that most obviously means investing far more significantly in the smart and/or digital economy to get us back up with global trends. Right now we are still price-takers for commodities and services rather than price-setters for new technology.

It can be done. A Chinese student who attended the Sydney college I work with has, on the basis of work done while in Australia, created a major drone company that has revolutionised agricultural spraying in China with the technology adaptable to deal with the virus condition.

Australia and New Zealand have skills and capabilities in these areas and right now, I would argue, is the time to support them strongly so we can rebuild a forward- rather than backwards-looking economic outlook. It would be a pity to go through all this and waste a major opportunity. As Richard Russo has his character, Teddy, ruminate at the end of Chances Are:

What made the contest between fate and free will so lopsided
was that human beings inevitably mistook one for the other,
hurling themselves furiously against that which is fixed and
immutable while ignoring the very things over which they actually
had some control.

2 thoughts on “Past, Present, and Future

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