The age of the grumpy old man

Last updated 05:00 18/08/2013
GRUMPY: Kiwi blokes of a certain age get riled about all sorts of things.

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Ask the internet and you'll get pictures of dwarves and world-famous cats affected, coincidentally, by feline dwarfism. It's not until you scroll through image upon image of peeved-off Care Bears, royal flower girls and ginger-haired children that you find what we usually associate with the term 'grumpy': Old men.

Furrowed brows, tightly pursed lips, fists shaking furiously in the air, mature men with that look - that 'seen and done it all, and have realised no one else can see or do it quite as well as I can' look.

Auckland's Paul Little doesn't seem much like a grumpy old man. On a big, cushy couch, surrounded by a very friendly dog and three cats so laid back they hardly move a whisker, the writer-turned-publisher is a most welcoming host.

"Drink? Tea, coffee, water? Still or sparkling? Lemon?" There isn't much of the cantankerous about him. But behind this warm exterior lurks a middle-aged man who gets hot under the collar when Gen Y'ers go back on their word, and when people are incapable of using self-service checkouts properly.

Little, along with collaborator Dorothy Dudek Vinicombe, has called on 47 other Kiwi blokes to throw their two cents worth into the pit of annoyance for a new book simply called Grumpy Old Men. Fitting that description might not be the most flattering thing in the world, and Little, 56, says "heaps" of possible contributors, targeted because they were over 50, balked at the idea of being grumpy and/or old.

"It was appalling, I was disappointed in my own demographic to some extent," he says with a roll of the eyes. A few men gave a flat-out no - the grumpiest response Little got was from (an unnamed) someone who declined because he "thought it was a terrible idea and life's too serious and horrible to treat it with any degree of lightness".

Others, however, could appreciate the humour and intent of the project, once the brief - be grumpy about something, or about many things; it doesn't mean you are generally grumpy - was on paper.

Scientist and social entrepreneur Sir Ray Avery was first on board (it helped that Little had worked on Avery's autobiography) and later, 46 others joined in, keen to have a good old-fashioned rant about both the mundane and the world-shattering.

Kiwi blokes can get riled up about almost anything, it seems. In the book, subjects they are grumpy about include: the internet, answer-phone messages, Christmas, Perky Nana bars, eulogies, sport, ukuleles, walking and the judicial system. Musician Dave Dobbyn even complains about complaining.

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Little knew they had a book when he read Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd's piece about dogs ("because nobody says they don't like animals. We are not allowed to say it.") He was surprised by winemaker and actor Sam Neil's distaste for certain viticulture vernacular, and amused when Dr Brian Edwards talked at him about noise for 45 minutes.

"I could completely sympathise because I work from home too, and I live with that same daily [intrusion]. Nearly all the houses on this block have finished renovating, and I swear to god they are about to go back to the beginning and start again," says a resigned Little.

Almost right on cue, an unhealthy sound pierces the suburban silence. We think it's coming from the backyard of one of Little's Grey Lynn neighbours. "This is new. This started yesterday. This could possibly get me a little grumpy," he muses.

The school holidays have forced some poor parent to allow a trumpet into the hands of a child. A child who, according to Little's theory, will also get grumpy with age. "I'm perfectly pleasant, really, but there are lots of things that make me grumpy that might not have years ago. In fact I know they didn't."

I think you get on and go, 'Shit, I don't know how long I've got left, I really can't stand on the side, waiting for that person to remember their pin number,' as former broadcaster John Hawkesby says. Or as Avery says, the people who push in front of you at the bakery because they are important, 'they must be because they are talking on their phone the whole time'."

Little concedes some of the grumpiness directed towards the youth of today might be bitterness. "And regret and nostalgia. I think if you don't have first-hand experience of these different ways of constructing a career and a life, then you just look at it and think,'F*** they're having fun. I never had fun when I was young. I can only afford to have fun now, and I'm old. That's not fair.' "I think a lot of guys, 60-plus, felt when they were young they were working to save the world, and probably that they are still working towards it because the world never got saved."

But what about the women who were saving the world alongside these grumpy old guys?  If they have a whinge about something, they are often called names loaded with much more nastiness than grumpy - old bag, old witch, etcetera.

Little acknowledges the labels are out of whack, but hopes the feelings behind them are unwavering -he desperately wants to do a 'Grumpy Old Women' version of the book at some point. "I can tell already, though, that is going to be harder," says Little. "I suppose it is kind of more acceptable for men to be grumpy. Those double standards are there in all sorts of ways, especially when it comest o communication and self-expression and what people are 'allowed' to write about and 'not allowed' to write about.

"Nearly everything the men talk about is in the public world rather than the private, domestic world. It didn't strike me until halfway through: they don't talk about sex, they don't talk about relationships, they barely talk about children and fatherhood - it's really interesting. Men are stuck, I think, still in that niche, just as women are stuck in the other niche."

Without spoiling anything, one story that almost breaks those rules comes from the founder of The Chills, Martin Phillipps. While he is the youngest man in the book, Little says he is probably the grumpiest - to eye-opening effect - for some readers, anyway. "I think most people will just fixate on his 'knobs on toilet seats' [story]. That will be the big take-out for people, especially women, who won't have thought about that secret men's business.

"The thing is that the book is full of people and how idiosyncratic and how pleasantly nuts we all are. And if you scratch the right place, that's where you find it."

Grumpy Old Men, compiled by Paul Little and Dorothy Dudek Vinicombe, Paul Little Books, $34.95


• "It is distracting for a judge to gaze for hours at incomprehensible and often misspelt words, or skin art drawn so badly that they are ugliness personified."- Russell Callander, Parole Board convenor

• "The school curriculum. I don't wish to add to schools' burdens, but a lot of young people have no idea about the basics of living. Personal hygiene. Cleaning toilets. Picking up after yourself." - John Hawkesby, broadcaster

• "We spend all our time on the net instead of talking to each other. We've lost the ability to pop your head over the fence and not be accused of being a nosy bastard." - Tau Henare, MP

• "I flat refuse to use self-service check-outs. Nor will I eat any food my wife checks through them. She says I'm being stubborn. She's right. Some nights I'm bloody hungry, too." - Kevin Milne, broadcaster

• "I get bloody wild when I come across those little stickers that we now have to peel off every apple, orange, plum or pear. Or any fruit. The person who invented that idea ought to be dealt with seriously." - Keith Quinn, broadcaster

• "I have to admit, I could count on my fingers the tunes I remember from today's homogenised, over-produced, Justin Bieber-style of repertoire. I certainly couldn'twhistle any of his tunes." - Shane, rock'n'roller from the sixties and seventies

- Sunday Magazine


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