Wednesday, April 23, 2014

From Khlebnikov to Edmond

I spent part of last week writing an introduction to Then It Was Now Again, a collection of some of the essays, reviews, letters, and interviews produced by the poet and dramatist Murray Edmond over the past four decades. I was pleased when Brett Cross, the proprietor of Titus/Atuanui Books, told me that Creative New Zealand was helping him pay for the publication of Then It Was Now Again, because I think that the book is much more than a set of literary studies.

As I try in my long-winded way to say in the introduction to the book, Murray Edmond began his career in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a time when politics and culture seemed, for a young and rebellious generation of men and women, inextricably connected. The Word Is Freed, the literary journal that Edmond and other scruffy revolutionaries published from their lair in bohemian inner-city Auckland, denounced both American imperialism and old-fashioned attitudes to punctuation and spelling.

Although the agenda of Freed may seem quixotic today, when the bans on smutty or subversive books and films that characterised the postwar decades have been replaced by a sort of patronising tolerance, and when even the most outrageous forms of culture can be recuperated and commodified,  Edmond has remained a dissident, and has retained his belief in the necessity of linking literature to social and political issues. As it advances through New Zealand history, from the heady seventies to the chaotic eighties to the neo-liberal nineties, Then It Was Now Again describes protest marches and bomb blasts, as well as poetry readings and literary spats.

One of the most moving texts in the book juxtaposes the death by cancer of Kendrick Smithyman’s son Christopher, the murder of the trade unionist Ernie Abbott, and the abduction and roughing up of left-wing playwright and alleged rapist Mervyn Thompson to create a portrait of the crisis of New Zealand society in the fateful year of 1984.

Perhaps because he has spent much of his career on or near a stage, Murray Edmond is a fine performer of his poems. A month or so ago I turned up to the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Auckland Zen Centre to see Murray read a series of short poems he had written whilst riding a bicycle east across Poland to the border of Ukraine several years ago. Murray combined his reading of these pieces, which he called ‘baiku’, because of their resemblance to the haiku associated with Zen Buddhism, with reminiscences about his journey and reflections on this year’s Ukrainian revolution.

As Edmond described crossing the sites of World War Two battles and sleeping in the former bedroom of the general who had brought the Red Army into Poland, I was impressed by the contrast between his slow and solitary journey east and the great and terrible movements of armies and refugees that Poland and the Ukraine witnessed in the twentieth century. 
When Murray explained that he would be spending another month in Poland in the middle of this year, I wondered whether he would take to his bicycle again, and end up riding into a convoy of tanks despatched by Putin, that avatar of Ivan the Terrible and Stalin. Would the veteran of New Zealand’s cultural avant-garde have to climb down from his modest vehicle, offer his notebook to some agitated tank commander, and try to explain that he was a poet, not a spy or a revolutionary? How would his gentle, ironic baiku be received by Putin’s troops?

Murray Edmond is hardly the first poet to journey deep into Europe’s east in search of inspiration. In the early decades of the twentieth century Velimir Khlebnikov walked huge distances across his Russian homeland, and into neighbouring nations like Persia and Azerbaijain. Khlebnikov, who liked to describe himself as ‘The King of Time’ and the ‘President of Planet Earth’ was the inventor of a form of logic called ‘beyonsense’, a gloriously illogical language called Zaum, and a set of mathematical-etymological formulae that were allegedly able to explain all past and predict all future events. It was in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, at the end of one of his prodigious journeys, that Khlebnikov discovered these formulae, and wrote a text called ‘The Tables of Destiny’, which was intended to make the whole of human history luminously clear. 
Khlebnikov was a member of Russia’s fissiparous club of Futurist writers and artists, but he arguably had more in common with the adherants of Cosmism, a doctrine popularised by the nineteenth century scientist and mystic Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. The Cosmists regarded death as a humiliating encumbrance that humans must throw off, and considered planet earth an enormous trap. Science and technology were the weapons with which humanity would conquer time and space.

Many of the Cosmists saw the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 as a victory for their creed. They submitted proposals for the construction of spaceships to the new government, and denounced mortality as a legacy of the vanquished bourgeoisie. When Lenin was embalmed and displayed to the masses in Red Square, Cosmists decided that the Bolsheviks were preparing the great leader for the day when he could be resurrected by scientists. They urged Lenin’s successors to establish a ‘global cemetery’ in the permafrosted far north of Russia, so that the rest of humanity could also await immortality. 
Khlebnikov died in 1922, after suffering from typhus and malnutrition; many of the Cosmists perished a decade or so later in Stalin’s gulags. The gap between the Cosmists’ vision and the reality they were forced to inhabit is, for me at least, poignant rather than ridiculous. I hope that Murray takes care on those eastern roads.

 A Short History of Russian Cosmism (for Murray Edmond)

In exile, amongst the library stacks
or on the Steppe, Fedorov remembered
to steer by the stars: the earth
is a trap, he muttered, into the tin ear
of his cup, as they queued together for soup
beside barracks walls.
The earth is a trap
we must escape.

Later, after their guts had been sated,
Tsiolkovsky drew three lines
in the dust. This is a rocket
ship. He drew a circle, stubbed a thumb in it.
This is spaceship
earth. We will travel
the universe, retrieving cosmic particles,
resurrecting everybody
who has ever lived.
Dead Tsars would be the first to stir
in the labs of spaceship earth.

Khlebnikov walked east, one soup queue
at a time, escaping the city’s libraries
and museums, those learned brains floating
in self-contemplation,
like ancient insects in amber.

Now Khlebnikov could think.

The intellectual must turn irredentist
and reconquer his body, its lost provinces
of fur and salt. The mind must be broken up
and dispersed around the body, so that it lights
each extremity.

Khlebnikov walked further east, thinking
with his feet.

The earth is nothing
but an overgrown brain, abandoned
to revery and introspection,
a billion boulders and thornbushes
waiting to shatter and burn.
Let us break open
and engine the earth,
and fly east, toward resurrected stars.

On the horizon a new set of barracks walls grew.
Khlebnikov could smell soup.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, April 18, 2014

Time for archetypes

About this time last year, on a uncomfortably hot and yet windy and wet day, I was sitting in Escape, the aptly named, because air-conditioned, cafe in central Nuku’alofa, listening to several Tongans talk about Clive Edwards, a veteran and controversial player in their country’s political scene. 
Edwards has sometimes been called the Winston Peters of Tonga, but his career makes the leader of New Zealand First look like a paragon of consistency. For nearly three decades Edwards has moved back and forwards between Tonga’s royalist political establishment and its pro-democracy opposition, sliding in and out of parties and Cabinet posts. 
As Minister of Justice in the ‘90s, Edwards oversaw the jailing of several pro-democracy activists, including the distinguished journalist Kalafi Moala; a few years later, though, he was presenting himself as the voice of Tonga’s opposition, and winning a parliamentary byelection as a candidate for the People’s Democratic Party. Today Edwards sits once again in Cabinet, as part of an ultra-royalist and very unpopular government headed by Lord Tu'ivakano, a man elected by his fellow nobles rather than by voters on the general roll.
When I asked how Tongans could still take Edwards seriously, given his numerous vacillations, one of my interlocutors looked at me with the slightly sympathetic, slightly mocking expression Tongans reserve for palangi who ask silly questions, and said “You don’t understand who Edwards is. He is the Maui of his generation.”  

I found it hard to relate Clive Edwards, who hobbles about Nuku'alofa in expensive, extra- large suits, to that master mariner and fisher of islands Maui. My interlocutors explained, though, that Maui is a sort of archetype who returns in every generation of mortals, and pointed out that the legendary hero and Edwards share a penchant for trickery.  
After talking with some of my Tongan colleagues at the ‘Atenisi Institute, and eventually discovering the essays of Niel Gunson, the missionary-turned-scholar who insists that Tongans traditionally experienced time as a cyclical rather than a linear phenomenon, and made sense of personalities and events by interpreting them in terms of endlessly recurring archetypes, I began to understand what had seemed to me a very strange explanation for Clive Edwards’ career.
In the visionary paintings of Benjamin Work, who has just had a triumphant debut exhibition at Otara’s Fresh gallery, archetypal figures float or stride through a sort of timeless time. In a review of Benjamin’s show for the online art journal EyeContact, I’ve suggested that his paintings not only educate us about Tongan history but give us a different, profoundly non-linear way of viewing history in general. You can read my piece here

[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Gardening and imperialism

Hi Paul,

when I deserted you and the rest of the film crew during the shoot at the duckponds of the Auckland Domain last Saturday, I wasn’t just looking for an ice cream. I was investigating the Domain’s Wintergardens, in case we wanted to film them, after we’d finished with those duckponds and with the ruined railway workshops in the park’s bushland.

We have talked in the past about a possible link between the Wintergardens, with their high glass ceilings and open interiors, and Crystal Palace, that symbol of Victorian imperialism built for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

For the millions of visitors who wandered through Crystal Palace’s interior, blinking at sunbeams sharpened by the thick glass of the building's walls and ceilings, the Great Exhibition represented an inventory of the world’s resources, and a demonstration of British ingenuity.

The Crystal Palace lacked the complicated spaces – the small rooms and hallways and antechambers and stairs – of more traditional European buildings. Because its vast central space was undisturbed by permanent internal divisions, it could be filled with almost any sort of object or activity. 

Arguably, the abstract spaces of the Crystal Palace were the corollary of the increasingly abstract quality of capital, in the age of burgeoning imperialism. As the English ruling class invested in Ceylonese tea and New Zealand sheep and Guyanese timber, the old counters and symbols of wealth – gold, livestock, the country pile – were being superseded by the numerals that flowed through banks and stock exchanges.

Like capital, the Crystal Palace could continually reinvent itself. The same room that held a collection of early English-language Bibles – the wine-stained portable churches of the Lollards and Wycliffites, with their innumerable errors of spelling and interpretation – could, in a few hours, be made to display a collection of garish, obscenely-shaped flowers from Guyana, or a set of silks from the East Indies, or a lovingly dismantled, carefully polished train engine from Manchester. 
We are interested in the Domain because of the role it played, in the late 1850s and ‘60s, as the showpiece and arsenal of Auckland’s Acclimatisation Society. As the Crostopi Manifesto pointed out, the Domain’s duckponds and the gardens that once surrounded those ponds were the site where the species that would transform the landscape south of Auckland were planted and drilled. Strange fish writhed and flashed in the ponds, while blue ducks patrolled their surface; plants garnered from different zones of the British empire flourished or expired in the flowerbeds that had been raised around the water.

When General Cameron took his army into the Waikato Kingdom, crossing the border King Tawhiao had made at the Mangatawhiri Stream, the species barracked at the Domain were not far behind him. As the soldier-settlers of the Waikato waged war on the land they had confiscated from Tawhiao, draining eel-swamps and making them into cattle pastures, felling kahikatea for fence posts, and ploughing hillside pa into croplands, they found allies in ducks, trout, rabbits, and other exotic species.

As James Belich has shown in his books Forging Paradise and Replenishing the Earth, the men and women who colonised New Zealand in the middle decades of the nineteenth century were ardent futurists, intent on using technology to build a ‘better Britain’, a utopia of the south. In many ways, the soldier-settlers who founded utopian communities like Cambridge and Morrinsville were far more modern than we are today. Like the imperialist businessmen who funded the Great Exhibition, they wanted to transform not only the human but the natural world, by creating new ecosystems and new landscapes.

By the time the construction of the Domain’s Wintergardens began in 1913, though, the history of imperialism had entered a new phase. In New Zealand and in the Home Country, fantasies of fantastic wealth and untramelled progress had withered. Trade unions and suffragettes were rioting in the streets of Auckland and London and Liverpool in the name of social revolution, and rival imperialist powers were drilling armies in central Europe. The construction of the Wintergardens was completed in the years after World War One, that four year indictment of European capitalist civilisation. 
It is not surprising, then, that the Wintergardens, and the many similar indoor gardens erected in postwar Britain, are a step backwards from the hubris of high Victorian architecture. The Wintergarden’s glass is supported not by steel, that symbol of the industrial revolution, but by bricks arranged in the shape of a barrel. Where the Acclimatisation Society housed its species in the open air, as if encouraging them to escape into the barbarous spaces of Aotearoa, the Wintergarden’s temperate and tropical rooms were and are carefully separated from the rest of New Zealand.

By the 1920s, optimism about the ability of humans to transform the earth for the better had been replaced, in New Zealand at least, by nervousness about the impact of exotic flora and fauna on traditional landscapes. Farmers complained of hills collapsing after tunneling by thousands of rabbits, and of gorse and ragwort marching like rebellious armies across acres of pastureland only recently taken from the bush. 
In the twenty-first century, tens of millions of dollars are spent every year preventing exotic species entering New Zealand, and millions more are spent on a struggle against nineteenth century imports like the rat and the possum. Where the imperialists of the nineteenth century deprecated the indigenous and celebrated the exotic, their descendants do the opposite. Sociologist Bruce Curtis has noted the way that the kiwi, an animal regarded with contempt in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, was adopted as a symbol in the 1960s and ‘70s by a Pakeha population keen to assert its supposed indigenity.

With its collections of exotic flowers and its pleasant ponds, the Wintergardens is a popular part of the Domain. Couples kiss and negotiate on the long benches beside the ponds; elderly ladies and giggling toddlers breathe in the strange scents of the tropical room; botanists aim the long snouts of their cameras at particularly rare or garish petals. 

But the appeal of the Wintergardens rests on its exoticism, and on the strength of the distinction, in twenty-first century New Zealand, between the exotic and the indigenous. Where visitors to the Domain of the 1860s were excited by the notion that the species being nourished there would soon be unleashed south of the Mangatawhiri, and become part of the New Zealand landscape, visitors to the Wintergardens come to see plants that will never be part of the local landscape.

In recent years, the management of the Wintergardens has sought out and exhibited plants that appeal to the horror of the exotic that has is such a feature of twenty-first century Kiwi consciousness. Last year, for instance, they were able to procure and display a titum arum, which is native to the jungles of Sumatra and smells like a decomposing cadaver. The ‘corpse flower’, as it is popularly known, attracted large crowds, as Aucklanders sniffed and grimaced at the strange visitor from a distant and dangerous world. 
Last Saturday, as you were trying to wrap up that shoot at the duckponds, I wandered around the walls of the Wintergarden’s tropical room. The rows of red bricks reminded me of an Edwardian prison or asylum, and as they pressed their faces against the panes of fogged glass that stretched between the brick, the species of the tropical room suddenly seemed like bewildered captives, staring out at the world that would no longer admit them. I’ve attached a couple of photographs.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Felix Quail, the multiverse, and other real delusions

[In recent weeks, as Paul Janman and I have revitalised our film about the Great South Road, we have enjoyed the feedback from Rachel Fenton, the Barnsley writer and cartoonist who has somehow found herself marooned on Auckland’s North Shore. 

Rachel uses facebook to try to maintain her connection with the civilised world, and it was on facebook that Rachel and I discussed Felix Quail, a character that I have invented while working on the film with Paul. In the following transcript Rachel’s comments are given in bold type.]

We’ve made a lot of progress on the film over the last week, creating a fictional character called Felice Quail. Felice is a descendant of an older, weirder, somewhat discredited character named Felix Quail, who served as an operator at Pandora Radar Station in Spirits Bay during World War Two, and became obsessed with the idea that the signals he was sending out were interfering with the movement of souls over Cape Reinga towards the underworld. As they helped themselves down the cliff at the end of the island, using the branches of the ancient pohutakawa tree that stood there, the dead would be blasted with radar.

I don't think you need to invent a character - just ask around - people will throw their invented/embroidered histories at you.

The radar technicians of World War Two were taught to identify the 'fingerprints' of enemy operators, by attending carefully to the information and distortion that poured through their primitive machines. Quail, who had been raised in a small spiritualist church,  started to believe that, as he manned his machine through long stormy nights at Spirits Bay, he was getting signals from the dead, or the not-yet-living.

At the risk of repeating myself, again with the too much screen time! Lack of sleep is responsible for many invasions...I think you risk losing the authority of the factual material if you Jenner it up too much.

Quail was invalided out of the army and sent to Tokanui mental hospital to 'recover'. There he met a man who was to change his life - a bloke who was called Len Dalgety by the nurses and doctors who unsympathetically attended to him, but who insisted that he was really Kereopa Latu, a Tongan-Maori diplomat for the Federated Nations of Polynesia.

It's like Pat Barker's Regeneration, and then some.

Latu claimed that he had been living in a world where Maori had won the battle of Rangiriri and the rest of the New Zealand Wars, and had established, with the help of the kingdoms of Tonga and Hawaii, a Polynesian federation that kept colonists out of most of the Pacific. A few years after the victory at Rangiriri, the Paris Commune had led to revolutions across Europe and the establishment of a socialist federation there. 
In Latu's world, capitalism and imperialism were only practiced by a relatively isolated United States. Aotearoa had its capital in Ngaruawahia, and its diplomats and journalists liked to point to a small and quiescent Pakeha population and boast about their country’s enlightened race relations. Latu had sent many years representing the Polynesian federation in European cities. One morning, though, he woke up and found himself in a world where Maori had been defeated in the nineteenth century and marginalised in the twentieth, and where he was employed as a fencer on a dairy farm outside Morrinsville.

Utopian. Until the end.

Latu's story convinces Quail, who has been spending his leave days reading William James, as well as heterodox medieval thinkers like Grosseteste and Giordano Bruno, that we must live in a sort of multiverse, where there are many different timestreams. The signals Quail was picking up at Spirits Bay came from another stream. Quail has the uncanny sense that he is living in the 'wrong' reality, where history has taken a wrong turn or two.

Quail made me think of this. 

One day Latu disappears from Tokanui’s secure ward. The nurses and doctors tell Quail that his friend has jumped in the nearby Puniu River, that old boundary between the remnants of the Waikato Kingdom and colonialism, and drowned: Quail knows better. Latu has found a way back to his own timestream. Quail is almost unbearably envious.

We all have our boundaries and envy the freedoms we perceive others to have. Yet the freedoms we know we have, we refuse to share.

After his release from hospital, Quail begins to study, in a chaotic but enthusiastic manner, both the doctrines of modern physics and Polynesian legends about 'otherworlds' like Hawai’iki and Pulotu. He decides that portals to other timestreams can be found at the sites of  fateful historical events. These places have become liminal and fragile. 
Quail decides that the Great South Road is a likely site for 'portals', because it was the route made for the army that invaded the Waikato, and the site of several battles, including the seminal clash at Rangiriri. He begins to go up and down the road, pestering truckies and bus drivers with enquiries. He wants to know whether they have seen the ghostly activity that many Polynesian cultures associate with portals to otherworlds.

There are many ghost stories that regular travellers on the Great South Road and Highway One like to share; Quail collects them. He also begins to examine old photographs of the road and its environs. In the images made by the soldier-photographer William Temple, who marched down the Great South Road to war in 1863, Quail finds eerie blurs and fissures that might be evidence of extraordinary forces. 
In terms of having a framework for the film, I like it, but isn't it just another Euro-myth you're bunging into a cultural archive already pummelled with Pakeha jaunts of fantasy?

Quail begins to self-publish pamphlets outlining his theories, and invites support from the public. Gradually, through the process that Lenin described as 'the primitive accumulation of cadre', he assembles a circle of followers, and founds an organisation called the Taskforce for the Investigation of Paranormal Activity on Highway One, or TIPAHO. 

It's getting a bit 1980s.

It is the '80s by now! The elderly Quail and his followers cruise and film the road. They hand out leaflets urging members of the public to assist their 'objective scientific investigation'.

The activities of TIPAHO resemble those of Bruce Cathie and his followers in the '70s and '80s. Cathie acquired a cult international following after claiming, in a series of cryptic books, to have discovered a sort of energy grid formed by secret military bases and super-powerful ‘harmonic’ transmitters around Auckland. Cathie found transmitters in the Waikateres and also in suburban Auckland, and he linked these devices to a series of curious events, including an explosion at a factory in Avondale. After performing a series of inscrutable calculations using the ‘new science of harmonics’, Cathie declared that a UFO had crashed and exploded at the factory while doing repair work on Auckland's grid. 
Cathie and his followers produced some blurry photos of UFOs, which have curious similarities to the images made by William Temple with his collodion plate camera.

The UFO resembles the light fitting of my old driving intructor's smallest room.

It’s both disturbing and inspiring to know that Cathie actually existed. 

It fell off the ceiling, broke his toilet bowl yet remained intact. Disturbing and inspiring. My personal feeling, and the thing that's halted progress on my Great South Road poem, is that I think there are enough Pakeha trampling on that road.

Quail is preoccupied with the 1940s as well as the 1860s, and he begins to research some of the more esoteric aspects of New Zealand's war effort. He finds in Nicky Hager's marvellously detailed account of signals intelligence and secret radar stations during World War Two confirmation of his belief that the stations were intended partly to 'jam' transmissions from other timestreams, and thereby prevent inhabitants of other streams crossing over into our own.

Those ghosts, they aren't Cathie's, or ours.

Quail becomes preoccupied with the Guide Platoons founded in 1941, when NZ's political and military establishments were terrified by the Japanese advance south through the Pacific. The members of this enigmatic organisation, which is mentioned tersely and tantalisingly in Nancy Taylor’s massive history of the New Zealand Home Front, were recruited from amongst the ranks of the possumskinners and deerhunters who stalked NZ's backcountry. They were instructed to build secret bases, complete with radar and radio gear, in the bush and hills, and to prepare to wage guerrilla war.

The mist is thick.

A group of Guide Platooners was sent to reconnoitre the ancient forests of the Pureora Ranges in the centre of Te Ika a Maui. As they tramped around the isolated mountain of Titiraupenga, they came across a small clearing made by an earlier band of guerrilla fighters. In the clearing was a ruined marae. Inside the marae was a chest of rotten wood. Inside the chest was one of the battle flags Te Kooti carried through the bush (this stuff is all, or almost, true). 
These Platooners were out of contact with New Zealand's towns and cities, and were mindful that a Japanese invasion may already have taken place. They were thrown back suddenly into the 1860s - they had become, like Te Kooti and his band, indigenes sheltering in the forest from an invader. Quail became obsessed with this obscure episode in World War Two history, and came to see it as an example of the way that Pakeha could be redeemed and relieved of their status as invaders and appropriators.

Quail decided, then, that New Zealand could only be saved by its destruction. Pakeha could only form a true attachment to the soil they had appropriated, and a true sense of nationhood, if they were confronted by an invader. Just as the European threat had created a Maori nation in the 19th century, as organisations like the Kingitanga were formed by formerly fissiparous iwi, so a progressive Pakeha nation could be founded.

How does xenophobia redeem them? Oh, here are some more people we hate because, um, we're racist, so let's hide - ah, now we know how Pakeha made Maori feel. Great.

Quail resolved to recruit an army from another timestream and throw it though a portal onto the Great South Road, so that it could march on Auckland.

Did he not think to just tootle off down a portal? Would've been a shorter story.

He has moved away from individual escapism towards a collectivist solution to New Zealand’s problems. That’s the po-faced answer to your question.

Yes, he's cooking with gas. This is like the "Pope in the pool" lesson in exposition. I hope the twelve people following this post are reading all of these comments! Sit up, kids! Is that The End? OMG, Scott Hamilton's been sucked through a portal! NZ is SAVED!

I lost a heap of comments!


I was quoting the Northumbrian (psycho)geographer Alastair Bonnet, who believes that many people in Western societies suffer from a nostalgia for the future: from a sense that some tremendous possibility has somehow been lost over the past century and a half. I believe that this tendency is especially strong on the left: we look back at dates like 1871, and 1918, and 1985, and see history hitting an oil slick and skidding, when it should have been accelerating to a paradisal destination. 
What if the Paris Commune spread to London and Berlin? What if Rosa Luxemborg had wound up as chancellor rather than a martyr? What if Scargill had bested Thatcher? And what if the Waikato Kingdom, with its fields of wheat and orchards and fleet of schooners and burgeoning villages where Polynesian and European cultural influences were becoming intertwined and complementary, had not been visited by fire in 1863? I think that Felix Quail dramatises, in his delusions, this sense of living in a world that has somehow gone wrong, in a reality that is obscurely counterfeit...

As David Attenborough said, "It may look like paradise, but living here is not easy". I don't think there's a possibility of paradise. More of what Danny Dorling terms a "possibilist" maybe...? I'm interested in collectivism.

Quail spends his last years holding court amidst his small and shrinking group of followers. He boasts of his ability to travel through portals to other timestreams, describes the wonders of his old friend Kereopa's world, and emphasises how heroic he is to remain in our tawdry, counterfeit timestream. Quail also likes to boast, after a few too many cups of kava, a drink he has ostentiously adopted, that he is planning to bring an army through a portal to correct the course of New Zealand history.

Kava has a lot to answer for.

Utopia seems a permanent temptation for humans, a comfort as well as an irritation. Or is utopia, in its modern sense, simply an outgrowth of Judeo-Christian culture, with its teleology that sends a degenerate world hurtling towards an eschatology that combines dystopian torment, under the reign of the antichrist, and utopian fulfilment, in the kingdom of Christ?

Is it a degenerate world, though?

During a public discussion of Paul Janman's Tongan Ark, Eve Coxon claimed that Futa Helu was devoid of utopianism, and suggested that this was one of the strengths of the man. And scholars like Niel Gunson have argued that in non-Western cultures, like the culture of ancient Tonga, there was no sense of the forward movement of time, no scythe-wielding gardener to disturb Marvell's sensual enjoyment of life, and hence no need for notions of a perfected reality...

Belief systems are tricky. I think that our stories are the fabric of civilisation, and if we tell positive stories, where people come together to work collectively, then it will filter.

But we seem unable to outgrow the notion of a better, or indeed worse, world. Modernity has, I think, a teleological sense of history as one of its core conditions.

It's a kind of arrogance - a narcissism, the desire to control or at least set in motion structures for the future.

When Quail's car is found in Muriwai Stream, which flows through the isolated Limestone Country north of Raglan before entering an exhausted Waikato River close to the Tasman, the police decide that he must have crashed and drowned. But they find no body.

Quails can fly - bumblingly so, but they're wick.

I was going to suggest that the cops found his car, but not his body, and that his followers chose to believe that he had not died, but had instead followed his old friend Kereopa into a better world. Sentimental, I know.

I think you should have left it hanging, definitely.

Give me an alternate ending!

Quail, it turns out, was not Quail at all, but Darwin, come back via a host body to say he messed up, and that his Origins was never meant to make folk pit one against t'other for supremacy of species, but that he didn't start it.

I think Quail would be a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinist.

I think Quail's story demonstrates beautifully an intractable paradox, the Gordian knot that is both collectivism and individualism and everything in-between. Once you accept there's no end to tug at, you see there's no end to hold on to, and you either run around like a scalextric car, or you let go.

You raise a very legitimate concern when you ask 'In terms of having a framework for the film, I like it, but isn't it just another Euro-myth you're bunging into a cultural archive already pummelled with Pakeha jaunts of fantasy?' I suppose one way I could respond is by pointing out that the notion that history somehow took a wrong and perverse turn in the nineteenth century, and that an alternate reality should be summoned up as a counterexample to the status quo, has been a part of Maori nationalist discourse in recent decades. 
Hone Harawira, and earlier Donna Awatere in her influential book Maori Sovereignty, have conjured up a Maori Golden Age that supposedly existed before colonisation. This myth echoes hoary English notions of a Norman Yoke. I think though that the real Golden Age occurred in the 1850s and early '60s, when the Waikato Kingdom arguably showed how European and Polynesian cultures could intertwine and complement one another. Peria, I think, is New Zealand's equivalent of the Paris Commune, bathetic as that may sound. I think that, like the Commune, is was a working model of an alternate and superior society.

I have a problem with the word "superior".

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, April 07, 2014

Kim Dotcom, Benjamin Work, and the Tongan swastika

In a blog post discussing the controversy over Kim Dotcom’s possession of a signed copy of Mein Kampf, Giovanni Tiso argues that collectors of fascist memorabilia tend to sympathise with that ideology. Giovanni’s argument may well hold true in Germany, in Austria, or in his native Italy, where fascist governments are a polarising historical memory. A German who breaks his or her country’s laws and acquires a copy of Hitler’s rambling, demented magnum opus, or flies, in a suitably obscure location, the Nazi flag, is determinedly stating a very unpleasant interpretation of history.

I am not sure, though, that most of the New Zealanders who collect the remnants of fascist power  feel sympathy towards Hitler or Mussolini. I was particularly interested in Giovanni’s post, because I have been writing a review of an exhibition by Benjamin Work, a young Tongan-New Zealand artist who is fascinated by Nazi imagery.

Last October Work covered a wall in Glen Innes, a suburb of Auckland with a large Polynesian population, with a rectangle of bright red paint. At the centre of this rectangle Work painted a white circle, and inside his circle he placed a minimalist portrait of the Tu’i Tonga, the priest-king who dominated the pre-Christian Friendly Islands and built an empire in the Western Pacific. By choosing the paint the Tu’i Tonga and his ceremonial head dress black, Work made viewers think, whether we wanted to or not, of the Nazi swastika.

I never saw Benjamin Work’s mural except in photographs that appeared on the internet. I was living in Tonga when he painted the piece, and I understand that it was soon erased. But I was both fascinated and disturbed by the mural, and began showing photographs of it to my friends and acquaintances in Tonga. In my classroom at the ‘Atenisi Institute and in the kava circles where Nuku’alofa’s artists and intellectuals gather, the painting provoked strong and conflicting opinions.
Some viewers interpreted Benjamin’s image as a condemnation of traditional, pre-Christian Tongan society. They believed that he was equating the Tu’i Tonga, a ruler who had the power to kill or copulate at will with his subjects, with Adolf Hitler, and suggesting that the empire which grew in the fifteenth and sixteen centuries, as Tongans raided and subjugated their neighbours, was the moral equivalent of the realm Hitler conquered in twentieth century Europe. Such a bleak view of the Tu’i Tonga era is not entirely surprising, because the Free Wesleyan Church, which has dominated Tonga’s religious life for the past century and a quarter, is fond of referring to the era before the arrival of Christianity in the Pacific as the ‘time of darkness’, when moral concepts were unknown and pagan priests, led by the Tu’i Tonga, practiced human sacrifice and other abominations. It is no coincidence that the Free Wesleyan church is the religious arm of Tonga’s modern royal dynasty, which used the bible and muskets to defeat the Tu’i Tonga line and unify Tonga in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Other viewers saw the painting as a sinister, because sympathetic, allusion to the little-known activities of Nazis in Western Polynesia during the 1930s and ‘40s. Germany has strong historical connections with Western Polynesia: Samoa was part of the German Empire from 1900 until 1915, and a treaty of friendship between Bismarck and Tonga’s first modern king saw German companies operating in Nuku’alofa and Vava’u as early as the 1880s.

New Zealand’s misadministration of Samoa after its invasion of the country in 1914 helped to create nostalgia, especially amongst locals with German and part-German ancestry, for the era of rule from Berlin. The Nazis came to power in 1933, and were soon demanding the return of the colonies Germany had lost on the battlefields of World War One and in the conference rooms of Versailles. Local Nazi parties were founded in many countries to support this goal, and a ‘world headquarters’ of the Nazi movement was created in Hamburg.

By the late 1930s there was a small but ambitious National Socialist Party in Samoa, whose members planned an uprising against New Zealand rule and engaged in strained conversations with Hamburg about the proper interpretation of Hitler’s views on race (the Samoans’ would-be mentors in Germany were appalled when they learned that many of the party’s members were half-Samoan, and that a couple of them were even part-Jewish). After World War Two began in 1939, the Samoan Nazis began drilling in the bush and talking excitedly of a Nazi naval raid on the South Pacific; New Zealand administrators responded by deporting them to Somes Island, that strange community of refugees from and supporters of Nazi Germany in Wellington harbour.

The quixotic career of Samoa’s Nazi party has over the last decade attracted the interest of several scholars; the extent of Nazi influence in Tonga remains obscure. There are, nevertheless, some clues to suggest sympathy for Hitler amongst a least a section of the German population of the Friendly Islands.

Recently declassified papers written by American intelligence officers during World War Two include a report on a rumour that Germans Tongans were welcoming Nazi U boats to a small island in the northern Vava’u archipelago. Dieter Dyck, who emigrated to the South Pacific in the aftermath of World War Two, mentions in his autobiography that some of the Germans he met in Tonga held pro-Nazi views, even after the defeat of Hitler and the destruction of his Reich (Dieter, who is the father of well-known Tongan-New Zealand artist Dagmar Dyck, had no sympathy at all for such views). Today Tongans still tell stories about Nazi war criminals who supposedly fled to their country to escape justice after the war, and who are drinking themselves into senescence in some beachside bar or kava shack.

It is perhaps not surprising, given Tonga’s long association with Germany and the likely presence there, in the past, of a group of Nazi sympathisers, that some viewers of Benjamin Work’s mural have considered it an expression of sympathy for fascism. “I don’t think a Jewish person would like to look at that” ‘Ilaisa Helu, the son of legendary Tongan intellectual Futa Helu and an authority in his own right on Tongan history, told me after examining a photograph of the mural.

Some viewers, though, took a much more positive attitude to Benjamin’s mural, seeing it as an anti-imperialist declaration of Tongan pride. By appropriating the most infamous symbol of European racism and stamping it with a portrait of a Polynesian king, Work was, these viewers argued, celebrating the triumph of Tonga over the European nations that tried, unsuccessfully, to colonise it in the nineteenth century, and also reminding us of the prestige of the Tu’i Tonga’s ancient empire.

During the talk he gave at Fresh gallery in Otara, which is hosting his debut solo exhibition I See Red, I See Red, I See Red, Benjamin Work offered an interpretation of the Glen Innes mural which seemed, to me at least, to support the view that the painting was intended as a celebration of Tongan independence, rather than as a condemnation of the past or an expression of sympathy for fascism.

“I grew up, as a half-caste in New Zealand, saturated with Western TV” Benjamin remembered, after I had asked him about the origins and meaning of the Glen Innes mural. “I was fascinated by movies about the war that played on television, and by the power of symbols like the swastika. Without in any way endorsing them, I wanted to use their power.”

Benjamin went on to explain that the streets close to the wall he painted in Glen Innes are full of Tongans, but that the kids who watched him at work on his mural didn’t even recognise the pala tavake and the Tu’i Tonga. Like Benjamin in the 1980s, and ‘90s, these kids were growing up with portrayals of World War Two, and they immediately recognised the Nazi origins of the imagery in his painting. By putting the sacred king of ancient Tonga into a shocking context, Benjamin hoped to make the young Tongans of Glen Innes think about their heritage.
When Benjamin talked at the Fresh Gallery about taking over the power but not the meanings of Nazi design, I was reminded of a passage in the acclaimed study of Maori architecture that Deidre Brown published in 2009. After noting that the followers of the prophet Wiremu Ratana adopted a Romanesque style when they raised temples in rural strongholds of their faith like Raetihi and Mangamuka, Brown argued that the Maori use of European architectural forms has to be understood in terms of whakanoa, a word that can signify both appropriation and desecration. Like an iwi seizing a waka from an enemy and redesigning it for their own use, Ratana’s followers were laying their hands on a style from imperialist Europe, defying the tapu surrounding this style, and making their use of the style into a source of mana.

If we interpret Benjamin Work’s Glen Innes mural in terms of whakanoa, then we might compare it to the appropriation and desecration of Nazi flags by Polynesian soldiers fighting their way through Europe in the last year of World War Two. When members of the Maori Batallion pulled a Nazi banner from the ruins of a captured fort and wrote their names and iwi over its formerly sacred white circle, they were desecrating an icon of white supremacism and expressing pride in their whakapapa and rohe. In the same way, Benjamin has arguably found a way to ‘use the power’ of Nazi imagery whilst overturning its meaning.

Giovanni is troubled by the extent of the contemporary trade in fascist memorabilia, because he has observed neo-fascists delighting in and profiting from that trade in Europe. I don’t mean to dismiss his concerns, but I wonder how many of the New Zealanders who collect memorabilia from the era of Hitler and Mussolini are acting on the same impulse that led Benjamin Work to create his extraordinary mural in Glen Innes. How many descendants of members of the Maori Battalion and other forces that battled fascism choose to collect objects like Nazi flags out of a desire for something resembling whakanoa?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Talking about Ohlala

A few days ago Titus/Atuanui Books, a publisher hitherto associated with obscure losers like yours truly, held a spectacular launch, complete with masked clowns, theatrical skits, free jazz, free noise, and a shambling, semi-coherent Graham Brazier, for a sumptuous collection of the poems of Alan Brunton, the cultural terrorist and leader of the globetrotting Red Mole theatrical troupe who died suddenly on the road a decade ago, called Beyond the Ohlala Mountains
Titus Books boss Brett Cross was well-pleased with the launch, which drew a crowd of nearly two hundred, and he'll be even more pleased now that Radio New Zealand has hosted Gregory O'Brien's enthusiastic endorsement of Brunton's book. Listen here.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Making (and breaking) movies

In his contribution to the recent special issue of the Griffith Review dedicated to New Zealand writers, Steve Braunias discusses for a paragraph or two the film that Paul Janman and I want to make about the Great South Road. Braunias is himself a veteran explorer of the road, and his essay for the Griffith describes some of his adventures amongst the car yards and barren parks of South Auckland.

Positive references to the film Paul and I have provisionally titled Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road have turned up elsewhere in print and on the web in the couple of years since we announced the project. These citations are generous and embarrassing, because we have taken only a few halting steps down the road of our film.

There are some excuses we can offer for our tardiness. In 2013 Paul was busy promoting Tongan Ark, his first feature film, with interviews, festival appearances, and the occasional visit to an outpost of the Free Church of Tonga, while I was living two and a half thousand kilometres north of the Great South Road, on an island where the speed limit is forty kilometres an hour, and where roads are sometimes indistinguishable from pigs’ tracks.  

Twenty Steps down the Great South Road has nevertheless begun to seem, to some of my more cynical friends, like a sly joke. Hamish Dewe, whose cynicism has a sophistication and passion that are almost overwhelming, asked me whether I’d come up with the idea for the film after reading Jorge Luis Borges’ short story 'The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim', which purports to be a review of a massive novel about a heretical young Muslim’s occult journey across India. The novel, of course, didn’t exist. Whenever Borges had an idea for a long book, he pretended that the book had already been written and reviewed it in a handful of pages.

Paul Janman and I want to try to prove Hamish Dewe wrong. Now that I’m back in Atalanga and Paul has escaped from his Ark, we’ve been making a determined effort to script and shoot our film.

We’re being assisted by Ian Powell, an artist and technician famous for his collection of absurdly outdated cinematographic technology. Some self-consciously reactionary film makers have rejected digital technology, and rediscovered the video cameras of the 1980s; for Ian, though, only cameras from the magical decade and a half after World War Two – only suitcase-sized, Bible-black objects that leave a purple dent on the shoulder of anyone who shoots a short scene with them – are worthy of the task of recording the twenty-first century.  
Ian’s dearest possession is a Swiss-made camera that was hauled, because of its reassuring bulk and reputation for toughness, into the Arctic by a team of BBC journalists in the 1960s, and used to record the passive-aggressive ‘Cod War’ that saw Icelandic gunboats and British frigates confronting each other in the northernmost stretches of the North Sea, as London wrangled with Rejkavik over the boundaries of fishing grounds. Having survived its tour of duty in the deep north, the camera is, Ian believes, ready to turn its cold eye on the wilds of South Auckland and the lower Waikato.

Ian Powell’s cumbersome, outdated camera produces film that can only be shown, initially at least, by cumbersome, outdated machines. Recently he unloaded a carload of his relics – an old, knock-kneed projector, as well as reel after reel of glistening, rustling film - at Paul’s house, while the great director attached a white bedsheet to a dining room wall.

As I switched off the lights and sat beneath the flickering blue beam that Ian was busy aiming, I tried to remember the name of the Papakura Community Constable whose visits to our primary school had been festive occasions back in the 1980s. The old cop would lead us slowly to the school’s small, stuffy library, wheeze as he stretched to pull the curtains in the high windows, and play us short films about traffic safety and marijuana that had been made with an artlessness reminiscent of the great Italian neorealist directors.

As one of the busier sections of Highway One bumped about on the grey felt screen he had unfolded, our visitor would describe, in a low, deadpan voice, some of the more spectacular traffic accidents he had attended. We would gulp and giggle as he explained the various ways to separate a severed limb from a sliver of steel.

Knowing that the house would be full of kids, Ian had brought around a reel filled with the 1980 version of Popeye, in which a florid Robin Williams thrashes around for hours in a tropical lagoon, waiting for a plot or some decent special effects to turn up. The kids loved it, and I realised how much I had missed, in the decades since that community constable’s visits, the soft roar and skittish images of an old-fashioned cinema.
The evident fragility of Ian’s desperately whirring projector – the fact that it might, at any moment, collapse, like an exhausted marathon runner – made the images on the bedsheet seem all the more beautiful. The machine’s sound became part of the film, as real and fragile as the waves that slapped the back of the semi-submerged Williams and the coconut trees that shook their heads wryly at his antics.

But Popeye was intended as a mere prelude to the New Zealand premiere of Schooner to Tonga, a documentary film made in Spanish by an obscure director sometime in the 1960s and discovered in a small town in the Mexican desert a couple of years ago. After buying the reel that held the film for a few dollars during a drive through Mexico, an American collector had contacted Paul, whom he knew as the maker of Tongan Ark, and offered to send him the artefact.
Before posting his find off to Auckland, Paul’s benefactor played the film’s first few minutes onto a wall, recorded them with a video camera, and posted the resulting footage on youtube. I blogged about this eerie fragment, which shows a group of young men and women touring an Auckland that is alternately psychedelically bright and penumbral, last year. The rest of Tongan Schooner is reputed to show a journey around the Friendly Islands, a place seldom professionally photographed, let alone filmed, in the 1960s.

As Ian carefully fitted the reel that held Schooner to Tonga to his projector, Paul hummed excitedly. As soon as the reel began to turn, though, Paul’s bedsheet turned an almost fluorescent shade of white, and the room was filled with the sort of terrible shriek my cat makes when it gets its tail caught in the fridge. Ian was soon dismantling and packing up his projector, and explaining to Paul, in a suitably compassionate voice, that Schooner to Tonga had been so damaged by Mexican dust and sunlight that it would have to be meticulously restored by expensive professionals.

I hope that Twenty Steps Down the Great South Road premieres before Schooner to Tonga. We're filming on Saturday: wish us luck.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]