"Anthologies," journalist David Cohen writes in the opening line of his anthologised columns, features and reviews, "often open to the sound of a sheep's cough."
It is customary to offer an apology for trying to flog the ephemeral into a kind of afterlife. But you can expect no such apology from Cohen, and nor is it needed. The pieces in here, with very few exceptions, have stood the test of time very well.
Why, you find yourself asking, is this?
Partly, it has to do with the subjects. Cohen has had the good fortune to be asked to write about and occasionally interview all manner of luminaries, from such lesser lights as David Farrar of Kiwiblog fame (or infamy, as you like it) and underground guerrilla scribe Richard Meros to the exalted, such as Paul Auster (a favourite, it seems), Alex Haley, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, even (gasp) John Rowles and Kiri Te Kanawa.
Partly, it has to do with the range. Freelancers are in the position of beggars rather than choosers when assignments are on offer, with the consequence that a freelancer's career is rich in variety, if nothing else.
Cohen's pen has roamed freely across political and social commentary, book and music reviews, interviews and profiles of musos, authors and celebrities, travel pieces and more, including reflections on autism (his son Eliot is autistic).
A very great deal of it has to do with his erudition. Without exception, Cohen's writing reveals a depth of knowledge and an attention to detail in his research on his subject matter that sets him apart, and that doubtless has contributed to his success in placing his work in international journals as prestigious as The Guardian, The Jerusalem Report and the New York Times. The NYT piece was a lovely bit of travel writing when it was published (1997), and now carries a distinct whiff of nostalgia (as its title in the anthology, Before We Lost A City, indicates.
Incidentally, one of the highlights of the collection is the 2003 piece from the National Business Review in which he speaks of the NYT's fanatical fact-checking protocols, as experienced by their sometime Canterbury correspondent. Someone stateside even phoned the proprietor of the Hurunui Hotel to make sure Cohen's description of the collection of black and white photographs on the walls could justifiably be called "a galaxy" of photographs. (The answer was "Yeah, nah.")
And another key ingredient to the success of this collection is Cohen's style. His prose is lively (occasionally convoluted), witty ("the acne and the ecstacy" - he likes that line, as he used it twice), and colourful, to the point of being lurid: "over the years, [John] Rowles says, 'hundreds' of women have lunged at him like gravid salmon hurtling a cataract". Or: "[Paul Henry] belabours his prejudices, and his sentences bump and grind like mating cockroaches" (he liked that one, too, as he used a version of it to describe the writing in Paul Holmes' autobiography).
But he is capable of beauty as well. Take this description of the elderly American writer, Alex Haley: "Under a rug of frizzy, cropped hair, his black eyes had the benign look that the old - and babies - assume when spoken to in the morning."
And last but not least of all, Cohen is fearless. Great or small, local or globalised, he will saw celebrity off at the knees if it is getting too big for its boots (or mixing its metaphors). And woe betide ye if you are a lazy journalist - a rock 'n' roll writer or commentator, or anyone who ever wrote about a Dave Dobbyn album. Facts will be checked. Literary vorpal swords will gleam and snicker-snack - swollen heads will roll.
• Greatest Hits by David Cohen (Makaro Press $35)