Jack Ross, ed.: brief 32 (July 2005)
Brian Bell, The Brian Bell Reader. ISBN 0-9582225-3-3. Wellington. Bumper Books, 2001. RRP $24.99.
I opened the Brian Bell Reader at random one day (I’d taken it into the office hoping to get a chance to glance through it while waiting for students to keep their appointments – always a chancy business), and happened upon a rather amusing short piece on Robin Hyde (“I Admire This Girl!):
She was a genius of a kind for those times – poverty stricken, exploited yet always alert, bright and generous. (p.106).
The same words could serve as an epitaph for Bell. On the strength of this collection, at least, he comes across as the best kind of Kiwi eccentric: perpetually distracted by a variety of strange subjects (J. K. Baxter, Bertrand Russell, chemistry, Eastern cooking, etc. etc.) What’s more, this way one can avoid the drunken ravings and conspiracy theories and sample only the cream of his diverse, diverting obsessions.
Alan Brunton, who put out the collection through Bumper Books, has assembled a loose anthology of letters, essays, reminiscences, and photos: bite-sized, entertaining and unpretentious. You can open it anywhere and pretty well guarantee finding something good. I guess my favourite piece is still the account of his pioneering experiments with nude photography in Palmerston North in the 1930s (pp. 5-11), but some of the letters to (and from) such luminaries as Norman Mailer run it a close second. I can’t help but feel that this book will still be fun to leaf through in fifty years time, when the more tedious life-and-times efforts of some of our more pompous contemporaries have gone to that great remainder-shop in the sky.
The design is eye-catching yet functional, reminding us – yet again – of the cultural loss we’ve sustained in the suspension (hopefully, rather than the close) of Bumper’s series of “experimental texts & cultural investigative studies charting moments where definitions changed.”