Thursday, 25 September 2008

Where Underpants Come from, by Joe Bennett

WHERE UNDERPANTS COME FROM Joe Bennett, Simon and Schuster [NZ agents HarperCollins], 258 pages, 2008, paperback, NZ $32.99
ISBN 978-1-84737-001-3

The only drawback I feared with this book was that the publicity for it would inevitably involve photographs of Joe and his dog with a pair of underpants between them. In fact, The Press has already published the first of these and I have to admit they were looking pretty good: Joe, the dog and the underpants. Functional rather than elegant, the three of them.

Then when I read the book, I found a withers-wringing description of Joe stripping to the aforesaid grundies in a cotton field near Urumqi in the Xijiang Uighur Autonomous Region, “the Tibet that the West doesn’t bother to protest about.” Racked by guilt and watched by farmers in Muslim skull-caps, Joe poses for publicity photographs in his Cambridge-blue underpants. He (unfairly) flagellates himself as “superficial and a parasite…a harmless buffoon who is aware of his own buffoonery.” It’s a long way from The Warehouse in Christchurch, where Joe’s quest began with the purchase of a pack of five underpants for only NZ$8.59.

When he has the bright idea of writing a book about pursuing his underpants back to the manufacturing and agricultural origins of their various elements, his agent is swift to respond: “Joe, it’s a crap idea.” but it was actually an inspired idea. I was delighted that he persisted with his odyssey from supermarket shelf to cotton field because Where Underpants Come From brings face-to-face two of the great enigmas of our time: Joe Bennett and China. Each baffles the other as he burrows into China’s factories, bars, ports and farms. Whether he’s in the top bunk of a bus or having his train seat snaffled by soldiers, Joe is a brilliant reporter, with a gift for the right phrase. “China doesn’t have motorbike gangs. China is a motorbike gang.” That epigram will ring true with anyone who has ever crossed a Chinese city street.

When he sees peasants working in the picturesque fields, his reactions are honest: “I recoil from the hardship.” He is also perceptive: “I see no one in the fields under thirty years of age.” We meet the missing young when Joe reaches Shanghai’s clothing factories and he encounters many more interesting folk along the way. We also learn that, given the right observer, a pair of underpants can indeed contain a universe.

My response to this book is identical to Joe’s response to China: “I hadn’t expected to smile that much.

Trevor Agnew

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