Friday, July 01, 2016

The genius of youth

In that early '90s cinematic classic Six Degrees of Separation an ageing, jaded art dealer takes a break from upbraiding his surrogate son Will Smith to tell a story about a visit to his grand daughter's kindergarten. Looking at the bold and bright and fearlessly imaginative paintings and drawings on the kindy walls, the art lover suddenly realised that 'every one of these children is a Matisse, a Picasso'. He confronted the kindergarten's teacher, and begged to be able to enrol at the institution, so that he, too, could become a great artist. 

I'm thinking about trying to enrol in my oldest son's kindergarten, after the lad told me this story last night, when he was supposed to be sleeping. 

Dad let's talk abut numbers. 
Ten is big. But not quite big.
A hundred is big.
You can tell nana that there are a hundred ants in New Zealand, probably nearly.
Thousand is so big it goes up to the Sky Tower.
Million is so big it goes up to the moon.
Million goes to the end of the universe if you try to write it in a book.
If you tried to count it you would go all the way until you stopped just before you died.
It would take you til you were an old man.
It would take eight weeks.
But that's not the biggest.
Do you know what's biggest?
Do you know what you call it?
It's called a flower.
A flower is even bigger.
You can't even count a flower.
The richest pirate in the world, he had a flower gold coins.
He died at Christmas. He use to make everyone happy.
He was a goody pirate, that's why he got flower gold. Everyone gave gold to him.
He would make a beanstalk grow up to a castle and he would make a kid grow up to his birthday. Tongan kids know him.
If you were nearly five and you needed to grow up to five he would help, he would speed you up to your birthday.
His name was Slow Coach. He walked really slow.

As soon as he'd finished his prose poem Aneirin fell asleep. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Reading Britain's crisis

Lenin said that a decade can sometimes happen in a week, and events in Britain prove him right. To find precedents for the turmoil of the last few days we have to go back to 1956, when the botched invasion of Egypt sent a Tory government into crisis at the same time as unrest in the Soviet empire pulled apart the British Communist Party, or to 1931, when the Labour Party split in two, with one half joining the Tories in a national unity government and the other half going into opposition.

For my money, the best analysis of Brexit and its likely consequences has come from the Daily Telegraph's Matthew Holehouse, who gives his latest article the ominous title 'The EU Will Treat Britain Like Greece'.  A long-time observer of the EU who witnessed the brutal 'negotiations' between Greece and its creditors up close, Holehouse he has no doubt that the British will suffer for deciding to secede from Europe. Britain needs Europe much more than Europe needs Britain, and by committing to separate the British have thrown away the bargaining chips that might have protected them from losing subsidies and avoiding tariffs. The German ruling class will make its counterparts pay.

Richard Seymour has provided a concise account of the chaos inside the Labour Party, as well as a depressing but believable explanation for the meandering coup by Jeremy Corbyn's enemies. Pointing to the coupsters' lack of leadership and composure, Seymour suggests that they are reacting hysterically to the new prominence of the party's radical left, rather than executing any sort of strategy. Quoting the heterodox Freudian psychoanalyst Adam Phillip's maxim that 'our rages disclose what it is we think we are entitled to', Seymour suggests that the Labour right's sense of entitlement has trumped political commonsense, and started a civil war at the very moment the party could and should be turning its guns on the Tories.

My friend and fellow former EP Thompson scholar Carey Davies has been revealing the psychic reverberations of Britain's crisis on facebook and through his twitter feed. I found this message poignant:

By far the worst thing about the referendum result (and the football, but mostly the referendum) is that I am sickened by anything to do with England and can no longer enjoy the English countryside, eat cake or listen to The Kinks's 'Village Green Preservation Society' (my three favourite pastimes) without seeing it as reactionary racist nostalgia for an era of imperial slaughter. Is anyone else struggling with this? Truly these are troubled times.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A new empire or a broken Britain?

Commenters on New Zealand's right-wing blogs are excited by the win for Brexit. They talk about a Boris Johnson government reestablishing independence and putting the great back into Britain. 

Conservative Pakeha are clearly enjoying the idea that Britain might turn away from Europe and reanimate the Commonwealth, drawing the old settler-colonies of Australasia closer even as it rebukes Germany and France. Imperial nostalgia has been encouraged by leaders of the Brexit campaign, like Nigel Farage and Michael Gove, who have promoted the Commonwealth as an economic alternative to Europe, and suggested that leaving Europe would allow Britain to increase its trade with nations like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. There are dim echoes, in these suggestions, of Oswald Mosley’s proposal for an autarkic British Empire
But what all the talk about refortifying Britain and revitalising the British Commonwealth misses is the ethnic character of the divisions over Brexit. Most English want to leave Europe; majorities of Scots and northern Irish don’t. Brexit is more likely to disintegrate than revitalise Britain, because it will prompt the Scots to demand independence inside Europe. Fintan O’Toole sums the situation up well when he says that the Brexit campaign has been driven by English, not British nationalism, and that its success may cause ‘one of history’s strangest national revolutions’, as an English nation state stumbles from the wreckage of Britain.
It would be fascinating to see the implications of the end of Britain and the emergence of England on Pakeha consciousness. British nationalism has always been a corporate identity, in which different nations find a common identity, and for many decades the settler-colony of New Zealand seemed almost as British as Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland. When our British Israelite Prime Minister William Massey visited Northern Ireland in the early '20s he remarked on the similarities between the institutions and identity of that territory's Protestant majority and those of the settler-colonists of New Zealand, and his hosts observed that he would make a good ruler of Northern Ireland.

How would conservative Pakeha cope with the breakup of Britain? Would they still be able to defend the place of the Union Jack on New Zealand's flag, when that banner no longer flew over Westminster? Would they shift towards an identification with English nationalism, or would this be impossible, given that so many of them are descended from Scots?

[Posted from Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Bill McAra on Auckland's housing crisis

William Faulkner said the past is not even past yet. He was right. This image comes from the cover of a pamphlet published about seventy-five years ago by the New Zealand Housewives' Union, but the slogan it carries might have been made for 2016, when Auckland has thousands of salubrious and empty homes and thousands of homeless people. 

The Housewives' Union was a small and short-lived organisation set up by the Communist Party of New Zealand. One of its most prominent members was Connie Birchfield, who contested several local body elections as a communist candidate and was for a while a member of the party's central committee. The pamphlet was written, though, by Bill McAra, a long-time central committee member, and has survived amongst the papers he bequeathed to the University of Auckland. 

Katherine Pawley, who works in the superb Special Collections centre of the University of Auckland library, told me that McAra died of a heart attack late one night whilst sitting in his study trying to bring some order to the mass of papers he had collected during his long political career. Katherine and her fellow archivists were given McAra's document-hoard, which includes news clippings and photographs and letters as well as lengthy theoretical treatises, and have survived the task of cataloguing it

In 1956 Nikita Krushchev admitted some of Stalin's crimes, and revolts spread across Eastern Europe. When tanks were sent to Poland and Hungary to restore the Soviet empire, the revolt spread into the communist parties of the West. In New Zealand Connie Birchfield was one of many communists who were expelled after supporting the protesters in Eastern Europe and demanding that the Soviet leadership make a proper break with the politics of Stalin. Bill McAra sided with the Soviet regime and the local party leadership. A photograph from 1959 shows him addressing a congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The honoured guest's face is swollen with pride, or hubris, or both. McAra was eventually expelled from the Communist Party in 1974. 

Even if some of the texts in the McAra archive are best forgotten, the pamphlet on housing seems prescient. McAra was writing during World War Two, when housebuilding was almost abandoned in favour of the construction of fortresses along the nation's coast and bomb shelters and tunnels under cities. The war created a housing crisis so serious that in the late '40s some of the barracks left behind by American soldiers were turned over to young married couples and other Kiwis struggling to find places to live. Hundreds of civilians dwelt for years in the old American camps in Auckland's domain and its Western Springs reserve. 

The left wing of New Zealand's trade union movement demanded that the Labour government of Peter Fraser build thousands of new homes for workers, but it did not support all housebuilding. Luxury homes were seen as burdens on the New Zealand economy, because they required large amounts of scarce materials and labour. Before it was smashed by Sid Holland's National government in 1951, the Waterside Workers Union stood against the building of luxury homes, and called for a ban on the import of materials for such homes. 

It was in this context that Bill McAra presented luxury buildings as a threat to the poor. He was right in the '40s, and he's right today, as the empty homes of overseas-based millionaires show. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Taniela Petelo's toilet humour

Recently I published an essay at EyeContact about the dramatic night when Tanya Edwards opened a show of her ngatu paintings at the On the Spot gallery in downtown Nuku'alofa. Edwards' new paintings have caused some controversy, because instead of displaying the religious and nationalistic symbols usually found on Tongan barkcloth they feature advertising-style portraits of unhealthy Western foods and beverages like corned beef and coca-cola. Some Tongans consider that such quotidian and undistinguished objects do not belong on barkcloth, a material historically associated with Tonga's monarchy and with Tongan identity.

In my piece for EyeContact, I linked Edwards with Visesio Siasau, who won a Wallace Award after putting a picture of Jesus disfigured by dollar bills on barkcloth, and with Tui Emma Gillies, who has put skulls and snakes and other images from her subconscious into her ngatu paintings. I also wanted to mention, an outrageous painting by Taniela Petelo, a long-time member of Nuku'alofa's avant-garde Seleka Kava Club, but I couldn't track down a photograph of the work until last night, when I found one on the hard drive of my mother's computer.
When Seleka provoked conservative Tongans by staging an exhibition at Nuku'alofa's Langafonua gallery in 2013, Petelo showed off the painting he called New Age Kupesi. It was made with clay and ink on barkcloth, and it uses a series of toilet bowls and lids to make a kupesi, or pattern, associated with the blossoms of some of Tonga's kakala, or fragrant flowers. Kakala played an important part in traditional Tongan culture: poets celebrated them, dancers wore them, and ngatu painters stylised them.
By associating kakala with toilets, Taniela Petelo juxtaposes the fragrant with the excremental, and mocks the distinctions that Tongan culture has traditionally made between beautiful and ugly, clean and unclean objects. The fact that the flush toilet is a muli, or alien, object, which has only become common in Tonga in the last couple of decades, only makes Petelo's painting more provocative.
When she saw New Age Kupesi in 2013 my wife laughed, and linked the painting to the scatological imagery that the Seleka Club has always deployed. Seleka is a neologism designed to echo kasele, the Tongan word for excrete. The club's members drink their kava from a toilet bowl, and refer to the drink as ta'e, or shit.

Some observers have damned the Selekarians as immature and disgusting, but club members insist that they are only responding to taunts that conservative Tongans have aimed at them. When Tevita Latu announced his intention of building a kava house where he and his friends would drink and make experimental art, elders in his village of Havelu warned him that they would refer to the house as a faleta'e, or toilet, and thereby humiliate anyone who dared to step inside. Latu and his comrades have chosen to satirise and defuse such insults by making them the basis of club imagery and ritual.

Petelo exhibited New Age Kupesi alongside a note explaining that the work was not for sale. Did the work have a special value for him, or was he perhaps concerned that a visitor to Langafonua gallery might buy and burn the barkcloth, as some conservative Tongans have reportedly bought and burnt paintings by Tevita Latu?

Footnote: the Seleka Club has just held a major group exhibition at its lagoonside headquarters. Here are a couple of photographs from the opening party. You can follow Seleka on facebook.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, June 20, 2016

Thomas Mair's Kiwi supporters

When I joined an Auckland group formed to protest George Bush's wars in the Middle East back at the end of 2001, I quickly found myself in the company of police officers. A uniformed cop came to the inaugural meeting of the Anti-Imperialist Coalition; plains clothes cops turned up regularly to protest marches and pickets. We could spot the chaps in plain clothes easily: their hastily acquired op shop jackets and pants were betrayed by black polished boots.

The police were taking an interest in the anti-war protests in other cities, too: in Christchurch, for instance, they paid a fantasist named Rob Gilchrist to act as a full-time spy and incompetent agent provocateur inside the movement.

I thought then, and still think now, that the police should be far more interested in the far right of the political spectrum than in left-wingers who protest against bombing the Third World. Like Anders Breivik rampage five years ago, the murder of British MP Jo Cox shows that neo-Nazis pose a real and present danger to the West. Cox's killer Thomas Mair had links with British and American fascist organisations, and he has won support from some New Zealand fascists.

As Pete George shows, the Crusader Rabbit website has hosted numerous comments praising the assassination of Cox, as well as calls for the slaying of New Zealand politicians. Crusader Rabbit's denizens were also big fans of Anders Breivik in 2011.

Are the Kiwi police paying attention?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, June 17, 2016

Lost kingdoms and irredentist rap

I blogged last week about the profligate and sensitive Tupou II, who almost lost his kingdom of Tonga to Britain. The Treaty that Tupou II was forced to sign with the British in 1900 surrendered Tonga's foreign affairs to London, but at least kept colonial administrators out of the Friendly Islands.

Cakobau, the first and last king of Fiji, was less fortunate than Tupou II. In 1874, after a reign of only three years, he found it necessary to cede his kingdom to Queen Victoria.

By 1874 Cakobau believed that if he did not give Fiji to Britain the country would be divided between Americans and Tongans. In the hills outside his capital of Levuka American planters and their Australasian allies had formed a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, and were busy terrorising indigenous Fijians and importing slaves from the New Hebrides and Solomons to work on their cotton plantations. Many of the American planters were southerners who had been ruined and exiled by Lincoln's army, and had decided to build a new Confederate state in Fiji.

On the Lau archipelago, which runs from north to south along Fiji's eastern margin, a Tongan warlord named Ma'afu had set up his own kingdom, using warriors and colonists imported from his homeland. As a young man Ma'afu had led a ferocious Tongan raid on the New Hebridean island of Efate, and he had retained his enthusiasm for war. From the fortified village of Sawana on the island of Vanua Balavu, near the middle of the Lau group, Ma'afu aimed expeditionary forces at Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. His Tongan troops won victories for Cakobau's enemies, and Ma'afu began to believe he could capture Levuka and become king of all Fiji.

There was a precedent for Ma'afu's Fijian adventures. In the late Middle Ages a Tongan Empire despatched governors to and took tribute from Samoa, Fiji, 'Uvea, and Rotuma, and sent raiding parties as far west and north as the Solomons and Tuvalu. Like his relative Tupou I, who had unified and Christianised Tonga in the 1830s and '40s and would reign until the '90s, Ma'afu dreamed of restoring the empire of his ancestors.

With its chaotic army, handful of quarrelsome civil servants, and incoherent laws, Cakobau's kingdom must have seemed no match for Confederate slavers and Tongan imperialists.
Back in April I found Cakobau's flag and one of his cannons near the back of the Fiji National Museum in Suva. The flag was pinned to a wall like the wing of some long-extinct bird, and the cannon's throat was dusty. I have never been a monarchist, but I found something poignant about these relics of a doomed king. I thought about some of the last lines in Richard II, Shakespeare's tribute to another ill-starred monarch:

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed...

Ma'afu may have helped defeat Cakobau, but he did not conquer Fiji. As John Spurway shows in his recently published, massive, and ultimately melancholy book Ma'afu, Prince of Tonga, chief of Fiji, the master of Lau became an anachronism after the Union Jack rose over Fiji. A warlord without any wars to fight, Ma'afu was coopted by the British, and became a harmless governor of the archipelago he had conquered.

Tonga still contains a few irredentists, who share the nineteenth century dream of a revived empire. In 2014 a noble named Lord Ma'afu, who at the time had a cabinet post in Tonga's government, suggested that Fiji return the Lau Islands to his country in 'exchange' for a couple of uninhabited, half-submerged reefs. Fiji's media and politicians were unimpressed.

At about the time Lord Ma'afu was asking for the return of Lau, the Nuku'alofa-based rapper Jimmy the Great was having a big local hit with a song called 'Pacific Conqueror', whose lyrics mixed up faux-gangsta braggadocio with allusions to the empire built by Tonga's ancient kings. 'Pacific Conqueror' probably didn't make Jimmy a great number of fans in Suva or Apia.

The Tongan monarch still appoints a noble to represent the Lau group, and Tonga's Free Wesleyan church still sends a minister to the group. Today, though, Fiji is far bigger than Tonga, and outpunches its old rival economically and diplomatically. Lau Islanders look west to Suva, rather than east to Nuku'alofa. Out of Lau's scores of villages, only Sawana remains culturally Tongan.
A few days after visiting Fiji's museum I found this poster on a street near the centre of Nuku'alofa, It advertises a fundraising campaign for Sawana, which it hails as 'the only remaining Tongan village in Fiji'. Like the rest of Lau, Sawana was devastated last year by Cyclone Winston. The Free Wesleyan Church where Tongan hymns are still sung was shattered, and iron flew off house rooves and into the old war-ditch that still separates Sawanans from their neighbours.

It is not surprising that a campaign to help rebuild Sawana has appeared in Nuku'alofa. For some Tongans the village is the symbol of a lost kingdom, and a lost empire.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]