Friday, June 15, 2018

The triangular dancers

The slab of beachrock, with its dancing, triangular figures, had been lying for centuries under the sand. It might have been an ancient tablet buried in a Sumerian or an Egyptian desert, covered in a script that had become archaic, that was recognised only by scholars and madmen. Then, at the end of 2008, a storm lurched through the Ha'apai archipelago, and wiped the beach clean. Suddenly the dancers of Foa island performed for a new audience: astonished local fishermen, uncomprehending palangi holidaymakers.
David Burley hurried to Foa. He knew the seas were rising, that the low islands of Ha'apai sinking. Another storm might submerge the dancers, or veil them again in sand.
Burley remembered how, on the neighbouring island of Ha'ano, fourteen years earlier, locals had dug up & destroyed a centuries-old temple he had only just rediscovered, surveyed, described in an academic article. The Christians of Ha'ano did not want to be reminded of their pagan ancestors. Ancient Tonga is fragile.
Burley called his study of the stone dancers 'Triangular Men on One Very Long Voyage'. The rock on Foa's coast had been carved, he decided, by Hawai'ian visitors. It remembered an epic ancient voyage, between West & East Polynesia.
For Tongan scholar 'Okusi Mahina, the petroglyph was no surprise. It was written proof for the oral histories he had collected, collated. It showed that his ancestors' homeland had been a liquid continent, an ancient superpower, not an isolated archipelago. 
Last year Visesio Siasau heard a story from his home island of Ha'ano, a place where the sea gnaws old canoe landings & where stone tombs and songs remember chiefs and fish conjurers. Another storm had taken more of the beach, the story said. A strange stone tablet had been exposed. 
Next month I'll be visiting Ha'apai with Visesio Siasau. Sio wants to land at Ha'ano again, to see the newly exposed stone for himself. Is it another fragment of ancient Pacific history? And can it avoid the fate of the temple David Burley rediscovered?

Friday, June 08, 2018


The Tongan polymath Futa Helu dreamed of creating a space where the ideas & cultures of Greece & the Pacific could dialogue as equals, and learn from one another. But is it possible such a dialogue had already occurred, many centuries ago, on the high seas? Waruno Mahdi thinks so.
I'm grateful to Lorenz Gonschor, the brilliant German scholar who has been teaching for a few months at 'Atenisi, the school Futa Helu founded, for introducing me to the work of Waruno Mahdi, an Indonesian authority on the history of words, ships, navigation, and cultural diffusion.
We in the South Pacific are used to the idea that Austronesian peoples expanded eastwards, from Taiwan all the way to Rapa Nui, Hawai'i, and South America. But Waruno Mahdi's research helps to show that Austronesians also made epic voyages and established societies in the west.
In a long, learned essay that teems with astonishing details, Mahdi argues that the Austronesians established colonies in India, sailed up the Ganges, had a presence on Africa's East Coast, & even entered a text by Pliny, disguised as Ethiopians.
In the most extraordinary part of his text, Mahdi argues, using his knowledge of linguistics, navigation, and ships, that Austronesian and Mediterranean sailors encountered each other somewhere in the Indian Ocean, & influenced each other's aquatechnology. Futa Helu would be delighted!

Thursday, May 31, 2018

But enough about my book

The son of indentured labourers, he grows up in the sweet labyrinths of sugarcane fields. At the end of the day, when he bows before Hanuman, beads of sticky sweat fall from his brow onto the unflinching monkey god.

Sometimes his father lets him into the men's hut, lets him listen to a visiting sadhu, a man whose ribs remind him of his teacher's rattan cane, chant verses from the Ramayana. The holy man's Sanskrit floats above the boy, like the clouds of ganja smoke his father exhales. The other men talk about a lost homeland, a place of elephants and temples and dust and riots.

Outside his village and its school, the boy says little.

To the Melanesians and sahibs of the island, Telugu and Hindi are secrets, sets of code and passwords that aliens use to set prices at their shops, or plot insurrection in their fields.

The boy studies. His exercise book is a plantation; he cultivates the white pages, until his pencil reopens the blisters that a machete handle made in the canefield. He wins a scholarship to India, to a university. He imagines he is flying back in time, to meet his young father, to stop the adolescent fool before he steps onto the boat, before he steams into slavery.

The plane lands in Madras. The young man wants to sprint through customs. In the queue by the taxi rank, in the monsoonal rain, he greets a stranger, a tall man with a sodden felt hat.

The stranger scowls, then takes pity on the young man. He explains:

You are speaking Hindi; we don't speak Hindi in Tamil Nadu. Hindi is an alien language. Even in the north they would not like your Hindi. It sounds very strange, very wrong.

'I am from Fiji' the young man replies. 'I have come home.' But he knows now that he will never get home.

In my excitement, I have been fusing, confusing, several stories in Stolen Worlds, a collection of Fijiindian memoirs edited by Kavita Nandan and published in 2005.

Stories of exile, of fever-dreams of a homeland, of impossible attempts to return 'home': Pakeha should understand.

Monday, May 21, 2018


My mother-in-law Ruth took these photographs at the launch of Ghost South Road last Thursday night. So many conversations; so many connections! 

The New Zealand Herald and a number of other media outlets have picked up on the book's discussions of racism - the banning of Maori from the rods and from the railways during the 1913 smallpox epidemic, the refusal of many pubs and barber shops in South Auckland to serve Maori (not to mention Indians and Chinese) until at least 1959. I'm pleased about this, but I'd also like to point out that the tome touches on many other subjects. Reproduced below is one of the publicity statements that Atuanui Press has put about.  

You can buy the book from Unity, UBS, some Whitcoulls branches, from Atuanui's website, and from sites like Fishpond. 

New book takes a strange journey down a familiar road

Hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders travel the Great South Road every week, but few of them know the route's bizarre and often tragic history, say the authors of a book being launched today. 

In Ghost South Road writer Scott Hamilton and photographers Paul Janman and Ian Powell show that the commuters of the twenty-first century are driving over the footsteps of British soldiers, Anzacs, and Maori refugees.

'The road was built for the British army that invaded the Maori Waikato Kingdom in 1863' Hamilton says. 'Thousands of soldiers and hundreds of wagon loads of food and gunpowder went down it. In some of the places where service stations stand today, the British built forts to guard against Maori ambushes. The road was a war zone.'

But it wasn't only British soldiers who marched south. The very first Anzacs fought and died for the road. 'We visited the graves of the Australian and Pakeha New Zealand volunteers who fought together in the Waikato War' Hamilton says. 'They were all members of the first Waikato Regiment, fifty-two years before Gallipoli. Eight of them lie together at Drury, beside the Great South Road.'

As well as the first Anzacs, some of New Zealand's first refugees fled down the road in 1863. 

'When Governor Grey started the war he emptied Auckland's Maori villages' Janman says. 'Maori travelled south, along the road, towards the safety of the Waikato Kingdom, while their whare were looted and burned.'

Ghost South Road describes later examples of conflict and escape. 'We crawled through a South Auckland cave near the road where fugitive communists hid during World War Two' Janman says. 'They had printed copies of their newspaper, which had been banned because of its anti-war slant, down there in the darkness, but then their press was discovered and destroyed by police.'

Ghost South Road also visits one of the work camps where tens of thousands of New Zealand men were forced to live during the Great Depression. 'They were working, essentially, for starvation rations' Janman says. 'And they slept on boards and straw, in tents of thin canvas. Many contracted serious respiratory diseases.'

'What we've tried to do is show that Auckland and New Zealand in general has a turbulent and often tragic past' Hamilton says. 'This road we take for granted today once flowed with blood and tears.'

But not all the stories in Ghost South Road are sombre. One of the book's chapters celebrates Leila Adair, the petticoated aviatrix who flew her balloon over numerous towns along the road in 1894, titillating and infuriating conservative New Zealanders. 

'Leila Adair was the first person to fly over many parts of New Zealand' Hamilton says. 'She should be as famous as Jean Batten or Richard Pearse. 'Many of her flights came close to disaster. At Hamilton she crashed in a mudpool; in Auckland she drifted over the Waitemata, and had to be rescued by a boat. Male chauvinists hated her because of her independence and her modern dress.'

Another of the heroes of Ghost South Road is Lawrence Beavis, an unemployed man who pushed a wheelbarrow back and forward between Auckland and Wellington during the Great Depression, and stopped in the towns along the Great South Road to play his banjo and preach about the coming end of the world. 

'Beavis loved ships, and eventually he built himself a model yacht with wheels, and steered that down the road' Hamilton says. 'He found that an easier way to travel. In the '30s, when few people could afford a bike, let alone a car, wheelbarrowing was a very popular sport, as popular as rugby, and Beavis was seen as an endurance athlete. His preaching and banjo playing weren't quite as endearing, though.'

'Ghost South Road is about events and people who have been forgotten' Paul Janman says. 'We're not interested in politicians and celebrities - we've tried to reveal some of the secret history of New Zealand. And we've learned a lot, as we've travelled to the sites of so many events.'

Ghost South Road was written with the help of an Auckland Mayoral Literary Award, and is published by Atuanui Press with the help of Creative New Zealand. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

A top twenty

Steve Braunias recently sent me and a bunch of other New Zealand scribblers a list of the hundreds of titles that have won national book awards over the past fifty years. He asked each of us a to choose a top twenty from the list, and then compiled our choices into a top fifty for the The Spinoff Review of BooksThis is the list I sent to Braunias. 

Judith Binney, Redemption Songs (1996) 
Our Homeric epic. Binney's life of Te Kooti is inexhaustible, and turns its protagonist into a figure as wily and unkillable as Ulysses. 
Michael King, Moriori: a people rediscovered (1990)
Not many books have helped rescue a people from oblivion: this one did. 
Anne Salmond, Trial of the Cannibal Dog (2004) 
Salmond's years of research on Polynesian outliers, where the sound of the sea is constant and the rest of the world consists of a series of visiting ships, gives her account of Cook's voyages and landfalls a veracity that no library-bound scholar could achieve.
Michael Jackson, Pieces of Music (1995)
Jackson is a forgotten man in New Zealand, but an honoured scholar and writer overseas. This series of prose poems shows a young man with a head full of Camus and Apollinaire floating through postwar New Zealand.
MK Joseph, The Time of Achamoth (1978) 
Time travel stations hidden in the King Country, visits to the Paris Commune and a future dystopia, a fight with a monster living in Karl Marx's grave: what more can a novel offer? The Time of Achamoth is a neglected masterpiece.
CK Stead, Smith's Dream (1972)  
A rewrite of Mulgan's Man Alone by a young man obsessed with apocalypse. Smith's Dream has haunted Stead: he wrote it quickly, so quickly he might have been taking dictation, and he knows that the painstaking and overstuffed novels he has created in recent decades have lacked the power and precision of his debut.  
Nga Iwi o Tainui, ed. Rei Te Hurihuri Jones and Bruce Biggs (1989)
An extraordinary arsenal of images and symbols and stories, wrought from the oral tradition of a great and greatly
wronged iwi. 
Michael King, Te Puea (1978)
A book that introduced the Pakeha world to the monarchy on their doorstep and the Maori civil rights movements of the twentieth century.
Martin Edmond, The Autobiography of My Father (1990)
Edmond reinvented creative non-fiction with a magnificent sequence of books in the '90s and early 2000s. This isn't his best book - he was still learning how to link anecdote to anecdote, still apologising for the dreams and hallucinations he would later treat as revelations - but it'll do. 
Douglas Wright, Ghost Dance (2008)
Wright's prose is so exact and sensual that he manages to make the ugliness of his illness strangely erotic.
Dick Scott, Seven Lives on Salt River (1989)
A regionalist masterpiece, and a rebuke to urbanites who disregard the history of places like the Kaipara. 
Albert Wendt, Leaves of the Banyan Tree (1980)
A huge book that shows Wendt's extraordinary ambition and energy. 
Kendrick Smithyman, Stories About Wooden Keyboards (1985)
The sly old fox of New Zealand verse. I published a book about him; of course I'm going to nominate him. 
Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin, Nga Morehu (1987)
Judith Binney made oral history respectable again in the academy, after long decades when it was shunned. The ghost of James Cowan must have been happy. 
Frank McKay, The Life of James K Baxter (1991)
McKay's conservatism and tepid tone makes his account of a hellraiser's life unintentional funny. When he deals with the Baxter crew's orgies and drug-taking McKay resembles a Presbyterian vicar tiptoeing past a brothel. 
Janet Charman, Cold Snack (2008) 
Charman is a schoolteacher from Avondale. She writes what she sees in tight, truncated lines that build steadily in intensity. 
Allen Curnow, An Incorrigible Music (1980)
Curnow may have resembled a pipe-smoking, cardigan-wearing professor, and the academic industry may be doing its best to make him safe and presentable, but make no mistake: he was a dark magus. Curnow's death-obsessed imagination finds its perfect subject in 'Moro Assassinato', a long, bloodthirsty, brilliant poem that begins in the waves of Karekare and moves to Italy, where the Red Brigades kidnap and slay the country's top politician. 
Tony Simpson, The Sugarbag Years (1974) 
By the seventies, Depression-era New Zealand seemed like a lost civilisation, a brutal and impoverished place that had been determinedly forgotten. Simpson explored the ruins of remote work camps, and excavated stories of suffering and rebellion from old men and women. 
Michelle Leggott, Dia (1994)
Leggott's book upset all the right reviewers, who complained they couldn't understand her poems. As Wallace Stevens said, though, great poetry communicates before it is understood. 
Sam Sampson, Everything Talks (2009) 
Sampson is an unrepentant avant-gardist, a spinner of Joycean word games, an enemy of linear thought and full stops. He remains holed up in the Waitakeres, where he takes inspiration from the rune-like patterns flying ducks and kereru make on the evening sky.  

Monday, May 14, 2018

A dream of the road

[I almost slipped text this into Ghost South Road at the last moment. Perhaps I'll print it out on loose sheets of paper, and tuck it into copies of the book at this Thursday's launch.] 
Afterword: a Dream 
One night towards the end of 2017, after a few hours spent editing this book, I dreamed about the Great South Road. I dreamed about all the vehicles that had ever travelled the road. I dreamed them free from time, but I could not liberate them from the road. 
I dreamed the traffic lights in the middle of Papakura, where the Great South Road intersects with O'Shanessey Street. Cars, horses, wagons, bikes, ambulances, trucks, vans, rickshaws: all them spread, north and south, along both routes. 
At the bottom of the traffic lights a man in tweeds leaned out the glassless window of a Model T Ford and shouted into the jammed intersection. He shouted at a wagonload of blue-coated soldiers, 65th Regiment men, as they passed a brown bottle around. The horse that had carried them all the way from Rangiriri - suddenly I knew that they had fired drunkenly at Tawhiao's pa at Rangiriri, that they had crawled through the mud to its ramparts, swearing and praying - shivered, and stomped its hooves hopelessly. 
In the dream I was bodiless, weightless: I could float alongside, above, the trapped vehicles. A Cityline bus with the red and white paint job I remembered from the eighties waited with flat tyres in the queue, followed by a taxi where a young Sikh man with a frail beard sat alone. The young man frowned weakly, as though he were too tired to do more than feign agitation, and gave his horn an occasional passionless blast. 
One of the imperial soldiers staggered to the wagon's edge, over a sack that might be filled with potatoes, or with a Kingite corpse. He unbuttoned his pants with one hand, saluted with the other, and pissed into the road's mixture of mud and gravel and melting tar. 
The cottages and stores beside the road were wobbling stage sets, painted in imperial pink, with dark holes for windows. I heard a musket clear its throat, saw a rip appear in a cardboard door. 
I floated higher above the jammed vehicles, and looked again at Papakura's traffic light. It was a brownish red, the colour of a rotten apple. 
I felt, during the dream, like a failure. My brain had tried to liberate the Great South Road's vehicles from history, but it had only created a terminal traffic jam. The road's users were imprisoned, not in their own years and eras, but in a morose eternal motionlessness. 
I was glad to wake. I lay on my sofa and listened to crickets working in the backyard dark. I heard the low mobile hum of a lone motorbike in the distance. The road was open. The traffic of history continued.  

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Ghosting the road

Here's one of the publicity statements for Ghost South Road. We're hoping that the book has a little something for everyone. Come and have a beer, or a kava, or both, at the launch on May the 17th
Ordinarily we think of the Great South Road as a way to get from one place to another - as a route to work or to a shop or a sports field.
But the Great South Road is a path through time as well as space. In the century and a half since it was built, the road has seen a series of terrible and strange events - an invasion, a war, refugee flows, riots, outbreaks of religious hysteria, epidemics, and much more.
Relics and reminders of this history - eroding forts, cemeteries stuffed with soldiers and pox victims, churches with bullet holes in their walls, bridges where bandits waited, pubs the police loved to raid, parks where lovers congregated - sit beside the traffic of South Auckland and the Waikato.
Since 2012 writer Scott Hamilton and photographers Paul Janman and Ian Powell have been journeying along the Great South Road.
Hamilton, Janman and Powell have followed the route of the imperial army that marched out of Auckland and invaded the Waikato Kingdom in 1863.
They have visited the roadside glades and forests where Maori refugees driven from Auckland by the war camped.
They have located the churchyard where the forgotten first Anzacs - white Australian and Pakeha New Zealand volunteers who fought together in 1863 - are buried together.
They have traced the path of the near-disastrous flight of Leila Adair, the scantily clad pioneer aviatrix, who outraged and titillated the conservative citizens of Hamilton with her new-fangled balloon in 1894.
They have followed the trail of the billions of rats who poured down the road from Auckland in 1900, infected with the bubonic plague, and visited Maori villages blockaded and starved by white militia during the smallpox epidemic of 1913.
They have searched for bullet casings left by the pair of stylish gay bandits who politely robbed Auckland motorists in the 1920s.
They have crawled through a cave where communist fugitives printed their banned newspaper during World War Two.
They have watched road workers sing an old Tongan lullaby beside a concrete mixer amidst the afternoon traffic in Papakura.
They have interviewed boy racers and religious maniacs, artists and road crash victims, old soldiers and new cops.
Ghost South Road is a book made with Hamilton's words and Janman and Powell's pictures. It includes thirteen chapters, and hundreds of black and white and colour images. Ghost South Road was commissioned by Auckland's mayor, and has been published with the help of Creative New Zealand.
Ghost South Road shows that both the history and the present of of Aotearoa New Zealand are wilder and weirder than anyone imagined.