Sunday, July 23, 2017

The disappearing lake

I had promised to register Countryside Island, which was created in the wilds of Drury by Friday night's flood and soon explored, flagged, and named by my sons, with the Geographical Board. By Sunday afternoon, though, the lake that framed the island had disappeared.

Kendrick Smithyman had a bit to say about disappearing lakes:
You follow me: I talk of what we have
and have not, of a sandhill lake
which comes and goes. Or maybe, came and went
since when I was last probing there
forestry men and engineers intent
on reform were then debating
how best to right an aberrant nature. 
Maps could not properly cope
with it. It was offence to natural
justice, natural right, and law. 
It came and went. Worse, it was essential
when not existent. Boundaries
tentatively it had, often flouted.
It had? Check my legal fiction.
Rather, they had. Sometimes three lakes flaunted
themselves, sometimes two, or only
one, or none. Not only sands were on move, 
lake dissolved, moved, reappeared,
will dwindle, again quicken. In remove
a presence, in presence a fact
substantial, insubstantial form
no less? This play with arid words,
dry as lake beds where cloudy midges swarm
until extinguished, dunes made
to conform to rational order and
rabid, but useful, their surgent pines
established turn to increase wayward sand...

Friday, July 21, 2017

Moriori in school

Here's a question for everybody involved in the education industry. I was contacted by MacKenzie Smith, who is studying Pacific journalism at AUT and writing an article about the treatment of Moriori history at Kiwi schools. For a long time many Kiwi kids were taught a mythical, nineteenth century version of Moriori history, in which Moriori were presented as the dark-skinned original inhabitants of New Zealand who were driven to the Chathams and then exterminated by Maori.

The myth of the Moriori as a pre-Maori people was dispelled amongst scholars in the 1920s, after the anthropologist HD Skinner visited the Chathams and proved that Moriori were a Polynesian people who had the same background as Maori but had developed a unique culture on the Chathams during centuries of isolation. But the myth persisted in popular imagination, and was reinforced by an article in an issue of the New Zealand School Journal that was used as a resource by teachers for decades.

Since the 1980s Moriori have been agitating for their history to be presented realistically in schools, and in 2011 the Ministry of Education announced that it was changing the treatment of Moriori in school curricula.

Mackenzie Smith wants to know whether much progress has been made in the presentation of Moriori history in our schools. Are teachers getting it right? Is the old myth clinging on in places? Is the subject even being discussed? Send your answers to Smith at

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Talking with Sio about Saipele

[It is Visesio Siasau's birthday today. Here's a poem I wrote for him. It describes the talk-filled walks Sio and I used to take along Nuku'alofa's warm, gloriously shabby waterfront at dusk. 
I learned about Saipele, the magician and carpenter of Niutao, from German anthropologist Gerd Koch's amazing book Songs of Tuvalu. Sio once spent weeks in Tuvalu, after the Tongan naval vessel he had ridden there ran out of petrol. He used that time to investigate the archipelago's culture.]
July the fourteenth, Nuku'alofa, six o'clock.
Rain falls like closing credits
over Vuna Road. A Chinese shop fades, one flour bag
at a time. Norfolk pines and ironwoods melt
down into the darkness. We are still walking
on Salote's wharf, walking back and forth
through puddles of fishemen's piss, walking fast
and talking about Saipele, 'last believer
in the old gods', adept
of turtles, initiator of Gerd Koch.
Saipele taught Koch where to aim
his notebook, the stub of his pencil, the snout
of an 8mm camera. He warned the German
against eating octopus, squid, turtle.
Together they stopped the tide off Niutao,
shoaled and emptied the lagoons, extracted lightning
from a silent cloud. Tuvalu cannot afford the wood
for sculpture, but before Koch left Saipele slew
a pandanus tree, and carved his first
his last masterpiece. Saipele, you are saying, saw the turtle
inside the tree: the swell of its back, its fin-feet, its tiny eyes.
The creature was waiting for his blade.
Dirty water laps the wharf edge
pedantically. Pangaimotu floats on the harbour
like a dead octopus. 

Maori as a global tongue

After one hundred and forty-seven years, Auckland Grammar School, one of the most prolific factories of the city's elite, has gotten around to hiring a teacher of te reo Maori. Conservative Pakeha are predictably horrified by this supposed concession to 'political correctness'. For conservatives, Maori is a 'dying language', which is only spoken by about three percent of Kiwis, and has no following beyond our shores. 
Advocates of te reo Maori need to make the point that it is very much an international language. Maori is effectively a dialect of a single great Polynesian tongue, which is spoken from Rapa Nui in the east to Hawai’i in the north to Nukuoro in the far west of the Pacific. 
I took classes in Tongan last year, and noticed how many of the words had corollaries in Maori. Anyone who counts to ten in the two languages can see how similar they are.
When the New Zealand speakers of Samoan, Tongan, various Cook Islands tongues, Niuean, Tuvaluan, and Tokelauan are added together, then they easily comprise the second largest language group in New Zealand. Almost one hundred thousand Kiwis speak Samoan alone. 
And the Polynesian language is only one part of the vast Austronesia family of tongues, which includes Malay, Bahasa Indonesian and even the Malagasy language of Madagascar. A third former who learns a little Maori can set him or herself up for learning one of hundreds of other languages later on.
Edward Tregear's Maori-Polynesian Comparative Dictionary, which was published in 1891 and sometimes reads like an antipodean Finnegans Wake, is full of Malay, Micronesian, and Malagasy words as well as their Polynesian descendants and cousins. One hundred and twenty-six years later, it is about time New Zealanders caught up with Tregear, and recognised the international dimension of te reo Maori. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pictures from the front

Paul Janman and his comrades arrived at the Mangatawhiri, the old frontier between imperial Auckland and Tawhiao's Waikato Kingdom, on the evening of July the 11th, and crossed the stream at dawn the next day, on the one hundred and fifty-fourth anniversary of the invasion of the Waikato. Here (click to enlarge them) are some photos Paul sent north from the frontier, along with a couple of images from his bus journey back to the metabolising city.  

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Good old-fashioned journalism

Kirsty Johnston quoted me in her article 'White Rage finds outlet in alt-right', which she published yesterday in the New Zealand Herald alongside a much longer piece called 'How New Zealand's alt-right movement plans to influence the election'.

I talked with Johnston on the phone when she was preparing her articles, and was impressed by the depth and duration of her research into New Zealand's far right. She created a fake social media profile, infiltrated the fora where white nationalists lurk and chat and share jejune and anti-semitic memes, and later interviewed a series of self-proclaimed admirers of Nazi Germany in the cafes of Auckland. When I learned that two of her interlocutors were Chinese I remembered the multi-ethnic Nazis who struggled through the mud at Ardmore airport a couple of years ago, as well as mixed race fascists who tried to seize Samoa at the beginning of World War Two.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The feel of history

In 1969 a young German artist visited a series of European nations that the Nazi military had invaded and occupied a few decades earlier. Anselm Kiefer carried a Wehrmacht uniform in his suitcase, and regularly donned it. He photographed his uniformed self in front of old memorials and the sea, and invariably gave the camera a stiff-armed salute. 

When Kiefer exhibited his self-portraits in a gallery, under the title Occupations, many of his countrymen were perturbed. He was accused of fascism, of irredentism, of anti-semitism. The artist defended himself by saying that he found the refusal of postwar German society to discuss the Nazi era intolerable. 

Kiefer explained that, when he dressed in a German uniform and gave a fascist salute, he was trying to understand history physiologically. Frustrated by academic history and by the cynical silence of his father's generation, he sought to enter into the past directly, by forcing his body into the materials and postures of the 1930s and '40s. 

And a series of influential survivors of Nazism came to the defence of the young artist. They considered his photographs less insulting than the reticence about the past that the political and cultural elites of West Germany affected. 

I thought Anselm Kiefer and his desire to experience the past physiologically on Saturday, when I joined a small group of Aucklanders who were walking down the Great South Road to remember the invasion of the Waikato Kingdom in 1863. When I joined them, the marchers were passing through Papatoetoe. They hoped to reach Drury by the end of Sunday, and then to push on to Pokeno, close to the border of the Kingdom, on Monday night, ready for the one hundred and fifty-fourth anniversary of the invasion on Tuesday. 
To walk over the same territory as the armies and refugees of 1863 is to seek a closer, more physical understanding of the past. Saturday's rain had made the berms of South Auckland muddy and rutted, like the road that Irish and Yorkshire soldiers struggled to build and defend. The way south through Papatoetoe and Manukau was punctuated by pubs and liquor shops, the descendants of the taverns and bootleggers' stills that promised exhausted and frightened troops relief. As I shivered through the rain I wondered at the toughness of the soldiers on both sides of the war, who marched through forests of punga fern during storms and slept on wet blankets in blockhouses and raupo whare. 

A broken-down Ford escort had stopped traffic on one of the Great South Road's tributaries. As smoke wafted from its bonnet, a tow truck driver waited and revved his engines. I imagined knife-wielding, opportunistic local farmers clearing the road of broken-legged carthorses, as soldiers and refugees waited in the mud of 1863. 
This year's walk was a largely unpublicised trial for what the group hopes will be a regular and well-attended jaunt. The Manukau Courier ran a report, and Paul Janman took the photographs reproduced here. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Where the beach needs reconstruction

We spent a splendid day and night recently in St Kilda, where battered palm trees look out at the storms of the Southern Ocean, the wind methodically strips an imported beach of its sand, sandstone churches left by Melbourne's first settlers hunker down behind art deco apartments, and bohemians and junkies live in boarding houses and council flats sprinkled amongst old workers' cottages bloated by the renovations of hipster IT workers and bankers. 

St Kilda's strange combination of seaside bonhomie and wind-lashed bleakness reminded my wife of some of England's seaside towns, and when I walked on the beach with kids I kept remembering Paul Kelly's great song 'From St Kilda to King's Cross'. Kelly begins the song by describing the excitement of leaving his hometown for the glamour of Sydney, but ends feeling homesick, and wanting to swap 'all of Sydney harbour, all that land and all that water' for St Kilda's unfashionable seaside.