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Joe Bennett


I’m fast forming the opinion that Joe Bennett is the best social commentator in New Zealand. He writes a weekly column which appears in the Otago Daily Times (annoyingly I can’t find his more recent pieces online so I cannot share links) on a weekly basis. Bennett, an English emigre, who now lives in the seaside suburb of Lyttelton in Christchurch is the author of lots of books (none of which I have, in fact, read and a deficiency I may soon need to rectify) and has an appealing style. He writes in an arresting and relatable fashion (the column is amusingly entitled “sleeping dogs” and Bennett often seems to form his opinions either walking his dog or feeding it when he meditates on some matter of interest or frustration). Bennett is also unafraid to challenge the status quo conventional opinions of our age. He did this brilliantly in a column, perhaps a month ago, where he suggested that the absurd, and condescending, treatment of smokers now subject to higher and higher demeaning corrective taxes for their decision as autonomous adults to smoke was becoming akin to Soviet Union era control. In another column, he poked fun at the pretentions of craft beer drinkers. He also pointed out, in that very witty column, that non alcoholic beer has never taken off because you can’t get drunk drinking the stuff.

Today’s column was also superb. In it, Bennett takes aim at the overuse of a certain four letter word heard spoken on RNZ’s Morning Report. The word in question? SAFE. The context ( I didn’t catch the broadcast in question) was apparently the announcement of a junior doctors’ strike in this country and whether patients would still be safe in their absence. Bennett says it was absurd to suggest that the situation, given hospitals obvious commitment to their patients, that it could possibly be otherwise. It was patronising, says Bennett, that the word should be mentioned at all.

The condescending invocation towards safety is also problematic. It is, as Bennett correctly observes, easily exploited by knavish figures in positions of authority who claim they can provide “safety” and we, the little people, should give them the power with which to do so. He reserves special condemnation for Donald Trump in his use of rhetoric as a cynical example. Safety is not guaranteed. Here’s Bennett’s excellent closing paragraph:

There is peril in the world, thank the lord, for it gives things savour, and it is infinitely better to acknowledge that peril than to hanker after the myth of safety and to live in dread. Ignore the authorities. And if you hear the word safe, scream.

It could be because some of his writing plays to my own biases but I think Bennett is well worth reading. Perhaps, as an addendum, you, dear reader, will permit me a recollection of my introduction to Joe Bennett.

I first encountered Joe Bennett playing the comic straight man off New Zealand’s master of the awkward situation Leigh Hart on Hart’s spoof chat show “Bookzone” which has evolved into “Bookshelfs” (yes, if you are unfamiliar, that is spelt correctly) which formed a delightfully absurd segment of Hart’s Moon TV (and more recently a segment on the Late Night Big Breakfast). Hart (in early episodes he wears a ridiculous wig) opens up cheap cask wine, in a very funny attempt to feign sophistication (because, y’know, all real book readers drink wine), then either opines on books he clearly hasn’t read or takes the “conversation” (it’s mostly just Hart riffing in his inimitable awkward manner) in silly directions while Joe Bennett becomes increasingly frustrated. It’s very funny.

Here is a clip from one of the earlier episodes of “Bookzone” where Leigh Hart educates a profoundly disinterested Bennett on how to construct a bookshelf.


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