Friday, March 31, 2006

Postmodern warfare

When Jean Baudrillard titled his book on the first Iraq war The Gulf War Did Not Take Place a lot of his critics, especially those on the left, took it as confirmation that the man had gone from postmodernism to raving lunacy. One-sided it may have been, but Baudrillard's point about the fantasies involved in the presentation of war in the West seems relevant to the bizarre details of the psy-ops the US has been running in Iraq. Here is Juan Cole, who seems rather too empirical to be a fan of Baudrillard:

The Independent has gotten hold of some of the black psy-ops "newspaper articles" peddled by the Lincoln Group to Iraqi newspapers (it paid $2000 an article to plant them, disguising them as real news). This operation is the ultimate in warfare. Instead of actually winning the war, the Pentagon substitutes itself for the journalists and paints the new Iraqi army as the eighth wonder of the world and declares we are winning.

The illusions are so circular and self-referential that when corporate media went looking for someone to comment on the Lincoln psy-ops operation, they quoted Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute as saying it was all just fine. Turns out that Rubin is a paid consultant of . . . The Lincoln Group (and quite dishonestly didn't let the NYT know it.) So the American Enterprise Institute, which helped manufacture the fantasy of a victorious Iraq War in the first place, now has its staff help manufacture the illusion of success on the ground and then lie about it to the MSM...

People who want to be in Congress should know the difference between Istanbul and Baghdad. Howard Kaloogian's website tried to prove that everything was just fine in Iraq by posting a picture of Bakirkoy in downtown Istanbul and characterizing it as a Baghdad street scene!

I just remembered this issue. Kaloogian spearheaded the move to cancel a CBS mini-series about Ronald Reagan, and to keep Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 out of the theaters! He not only is creating imaginary Iraqs, he has tried to prevent us from seeing in the media other accounts of reality than his own!

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Richard Taylor has started a blog.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

News from France

Think I'm going to post about the biggest joint worker-student demonstrations in France since 1968, and the panic they are causing in the ruling class there? Nah. I just wanted to mention that my reply to that silly old bugger Philip Temple's arguments about the census has been pasted up here on the Paris-based France-New Zealand Association website. Priorities, eh?

Actually, I tried to get a debate about the situation in France going here on indymedia, but nobody wanted to play :(

Here are some other analyses I've found of events in France:

The In Defence of Marxism site, which is run by the Grantite International Marxist Tendency, has a very optimistic view of the situation in France, and talks of a pre-revolutionary situation developing.

Workers Power is also bullish, but mindful of the dangers of a sellout by France's union leadership.

The World Socialist Website, which belongs to the small but prolific and internet-savvy International Committee for the Fourth International outfit (they're Healyites, if you must know), has a report which includes some interesting detail but ends up with the same old mantra that everyone else on the left is rubbish and only a new workers' party led by - well, guess who? - can bring the French workers to victory.

Over in Blighty, the Lenin's Tomb blog links the French strike to yesterday's walkout by a million British public sector workers, via a rather cryptic quote from Walter Benjamin and a series of evocative photographs.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Spot the difference

I see today that the Auckland Uni student mag Craccum (like brief, they don't appear to have issues online, bless 'em) is in trouble for printing the flag of Togo alongside an article on Tonga. On dear...

As an incompetent but enthusiastic vexillologist I have to say: come on folks! Haven't you ever heard of the glories of the Flags of the World site?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

brief #33 out now (phew!)

After a good deal of buggerising around by yours truly and his cantankerous editorial committee, the thirty-third issue of brief, Aotearoa's longest-running journal of innovative literature, has hit the streets, or at least the letterboxes of its long-suffering subscribers. The new issue is one hundred and fifty A 5 pages long, has the loose theme of 'Exile and Home', and includes work by persons as various as Dr Jack Ross, Richard von Sturmer, Dave Bedggood, and Jill Chan. And no, you stingy bastards, you can't read it online - even the one page ad on the Book Council website that I just linked to is out of date! Here, though, is one of my favourite pieces, a wonderfullly fierce review by the good Doctor:

Tracey Slaughter. Her Body Rises: Stories & Poems. Auckland: Random House, 2005. ISBN 1-86941-726-7. RRP $27.

I’ve just come up with a new acronym: BYTES – for “Bright Young Thing (Either Sex).”Tracey Slaughter is (or, rather, might be seen as being) a byte. She’s won a major literary competition (The Katherine Mansfield award, for her story “Wheat”); she’s had stories and poems in most of the major literary magazines (including a feature in Poetry NZ 25); and now a major publisher has put out her first book.

Unfortunately bytes tend to arouse a certain instinctive antagonism in (at least some of) their writing colleagues. These I would group into two major categories: BOGs – “Bitter Old Gits”; and JABBERs – “Jealous And Belligerent (But Equally-ranked) Rivals.”

Shortly after the publication of Tracey’s book, it received a write-up in the Listener which had to be seen to be believed. The reviewer, Paula Morris, criticised the following things:

• The writing (“clunky sentences, wobbling points of view, and unnecessary tense changes”)
• The structure of the writing (“Basic technical problems undermine many of the narratives”)
• The clarity of the writing (“denseness of imagery often works against sense and clarity”)
• The poetry (“feels a little stale”)
• The stories (“very slight narratives, moments rather than satisfying stories … some …. feel abandoned, not finished”)
• The characterisation in the stories (“Too many of Slaughter’s sensitive girls and desolate women feel interchangeable”)
• The structure of the publication (“shuffling … two genres into unhappy proximity”)
• The speed of publication (“rushing a book into print is no way to launch a career”)
• The design (“fussy layout”)
• The editing (“all suggesting a lack of editorial guidance”)

And apart from all that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Well, apparently there are some good things about the book. The award-winning story “Wheat” itself is an “atmospheric little tale that quivers with emotion” (the choice of the word “little” is a particularly fine touch – just in case all that praise went to the author’s head). What else? Oh, “Slaughter’s lyrical, often perceptive writing” is alluded to (once). Finally, it’s “smart” of Random House to “secure a relationship with her” (though it’s a little difficult to see why, given the “unpolished” nature of the work collected here).

Don’t get me wrong. Paula Morris has a perfect right to her opinion – and even to be harsh in expressing it, it seems to me. What really grates about the review is: 1/ its air of smug superiority, of pissing all over someone from a great height (“atmospheric little tale” – “quivers with emotion”); and 2/ the wholesale nature of the criticism. Virtually nothing escapes Morris’s machine-gun scatter of poisonous ink, including those things normally outside a writer’s control: the design, the hasty production, the very concept of putting out a book of stories and poems … It’s too much. At a certain point one simply stops believing that she feels indignant about all of those things.

I can’t say offhand whether Morris should be classed as a BOG or a JABBER – she would seem insufficiently eminent to fall into the first category, and yet she clearly sees herself as soaring high above writer’s entry-level. If that is indeed so, I’m surprised she can’t see what a nasty taste her piece leaves in the mouth.
All writers are forced to depend on the imaginative sympathy and engagement of their readers – but also on the charity and friendship of their colleagues. I read Tracey’s book before I read any reviews of it, and enjoyed it hugely. Nothing I saw in the Listener has changed that opinion at all.

I think I may be a little more competent to talk about poetry than Morris, who appears to be unable even to find a passage to justify her tag: “a little stale.” How hard can it be to locate a few flat lines in so many (26, by my count) often-lengthy poems? The fact that Morris does not succeed is no inconsiderable tribute to Tracey’s prowess as a poet.

And what’s wrong with putting out a book of mingled poems and stories? Hemingway did it. His first book was called Three Stories and Ten Poems (1923). Certainly it’s unusual, but whoever claimed that the best way to write was to stick to the beaten track? And what’s so “fussy” about the layout of the book? It has some pictures in it, true, and some blank pages. Is that a sin?

While I liked the story “Wheat,” it doesn’t actually strike me as the best story collected here. I prefer “Cuts,” with its brilliant first line:

When a customer got out his penis, as some of the customers had been known to do, the women of Diamante Salon kept up the chatter, their gossip ringing and glinting.

Now that’s an arresting opening. (Even Morris is forced to admit that some of Tracey’s stories “have very promising first lines … and resonant final lines”). “Sleeping Over” is also particularly creepy and fine.

So the only advice I can give Paula Morris is to get over herself. Greeting anybody’s first book with such a concentrated avalanche of bile and patronising half-praise is a pretty mean-spirited thing to do. When one suspects that it’s motivated by crude envy rather than actual indignation it becomes even more pathetic. I don’t hope for the same thing to happen to her in the near future – I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But I do think she should be ashamed of herself, and should take a long, hard look at her own reasons for publishing such a silly, malicious piece in a mass-market magazine.

For info on subscribing to brief e mail me.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Thought for the day from Bobby D

"Her father would emphasize

You got to be more than street-wise"

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The French connection

This is better than Eoin O'Duffy's style of internationalism! The placard belonged to one of the thousand or so students who went on strike - 'skipped class' or 'bunked off' according to talkback radio callers - last Monday to demand the abolition of youth rates. There are more great photos and a note on the French connection - though you must have been living in Outer Mongolia or Dannevirke for the last week not to have grasped it - here.

Meanwhile, Sharon Stone has come out against the French government's attack on young workers:

In the country for the premiere of Basic Instinct 2 the American star came out against the new labour law which allows employers to dismiss those on the new contracts without giving any explanation. "People have the right to know why they
are sacked" she said.

Any excuse to stick up her photo...

I wondered

why I woke up with sand in my pockets.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

From Ireland to Spain

This year is the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, and the BBC has an interesting report on the thousand or so Irishmen who fought on both sides of the conflict. While people from around the world volunteered for the International Brigades that fought to defend Spain's Republican government, Ireland was the only country which generated a substantial force of volunteers to fight on Franco's side, in the form of the poorly trained 'Blueshirts' led by 'Ireland's answer to Mussolini', Eoin O'Duffy.

Writing in the Irish Post in 2001, Niall Cunningham noted that:

[T]he 'Crusade in Spain' became an unmitigated disaster that would ultimately cost the General his reputation. After a couple of months training, the Irish Brigade moved to the front at Ciempozuelos in early 1937. The farce began about a mile outside the town when a Francoist force from the Canaries took the Brigade for 'Reds' and opened fire killing two Irishmen. When they reached the front their biggest enemies were the water, the twin issues of diarrhoea and a lack of underwear, and frustration. Frustration due to a lack of engagement on a relatively quiet part of the line led to division.

Meanwhile, O'Duffy did not help matters by spending his time getting drunk miles behind the line. Franco's patience eventually broke and the Brigade was disbanded in July 1937. Three months later a former devotee, Captain Thomas Gunning, lambasted the General in a letter, which showed just how divided the Irish were. He wrote of O'Duffy: "I did a poor day's work for both Spain and Ireland when I helped that insane, uncultured lout to put his flat and smelly feet across the frontier last October."

Friday, March 17, 2006

A busy day

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, and also the date of the Big Pay Out, a march demanding a better deal for low-paid Kiwi workers. There's an anti-war rally outside the US consulate on Customs St East from noon; the Big Pay Out march starts an hour later at the bottom of Queen St, and ends in Myers Park, where there'll be a concert featuring 8 Feet Sativa, Stylus, Olmecha Supreme, Geneva and the redoubtable Shona Laing.

That's if the owners of the Big day Out event don't get their way - they're threatening Big pay Out organisers with legal action over breach of copyright!

The Communist Workers Group has a leaflet on indymedia explaining the connections between the efforts of Kiwi workers to secure a better deal and the imbroglio in Iraq.

Also worth checking out on indymedia is Kirsty's note on the unholy alliance the Maori Party has made with the Nats to push the anti-worker 90 Day Probation Bill through parliament.

Maori Party supporters can't say they weren't warned!

PS: In case anyone is wondering, the marchers in that second photo belong to the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq. They're protesting arbitrary detentions by the occupiers of Iraq. To find out more about the Worker-Communists check out the CWG leaflet and the URLs at the bottom of it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Venezuela's new (old) flag

Yesterday Hugo Chavez raised a Venezuelan flag which boasts an eighth star, and also a remodelled coat of arms. Here's how the Chicago Sun-Times puts it:

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has a penchant for changing symbols -- he's renamed Congress, the Supreme Court and the country itself since taking power. Now his congressional allies are adding an eighth star to the flag of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. They're also remaking its coat of arms so that a horse will appear galloping left, not right -- a not-so-subtle metaphor for Chavez's politics.

Pro-Chavez lawmaker Luis Tascon defended the changes, saying Chavez's ''revolutionary'' process should be accompanied by a new set of national icons...Bolivar himself proposed a flag with eight stars in 1817 that was used for several years. ''It's the Bolivarian star,'' Chavez said. Chavez also said he thought the white horse on the coat of arms -- which appears in the upper left corner of the official flag -- looked odd running to the right while craning its neck in the opposite direction. He claimed historical drawings show the national image was intended to have a horse that ''trotted freely to the left.''

The new coat of arms also features a machete, representing organised labour, and a bow and arrow, representing Venezuela's indigenous people, but the Sun-Times seems a bit hung up on that horse. At the risk of sounding philosophical, I wanted to ask: does Venezuela now have a new flag, or just an old flag with some new features? How much change has to occur before a qualitative difference exists between the old and new? That's the question a lot of observers are asking about Venezuela itself in the era of the Bolivarian revolution.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Frame

maps has invited me to contribute to his blog, I think with the hope of balancing out his political agenda with a bit more ‘literati talk’, I’m not sure how much I can oblige, but as I have a great fondness for all things subversive in music, I thought I would open with a post that quotes a passage from ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’ I was reading this morning. It captures so succinctly not only the philosophy of ‘Art’ especially modern art, but also the attitudes to it you meet almost every day:

The Frame

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For Painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively – because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.

You have to put a ‘box’ around it because otherwise, what is that shit on the wall?

If John Cage, for instance, says, “I’m putting a contact microphone on my throat, and I’m going to drink carrot juice, and that’s my composition,” then his gurgling qualifies as his composition because he put a frame around it and said so. “Take it or leave it, I now will this to be music.” After that it’s a matter of taste. Without the frame-as-announced, it’s a guy swallowing carrot juice.

Anything can be music, but it doesn’t become music until someone wills it to be music, and the audience listening to it decides to perceive it as music.

Most people can’t deal with that abstraction – or don’t want to. They say: “Gimme the tune. Do I like this tune? Does it sound like another tune that I like? The more familiar it is, the better I like it. Hear those three notes there? Those are the three notes I can sing along with. I like those notes very, very much. Give me a beat. Not a fancy one. Give me a GOOD BEATsomething I can dance to. It has to go boom-bap, boom-boom-BAP. If it doesn’t, I will hate it very, very much. Also, I want it right away and then, write me some more songs like that – over and over and over again, because I’m really into music.”

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Bill's telescope

I remember reading an interview with Doc Neeson, lead singer with Aussie pub rock legends The Angels, which touched unexpectedly upon the public's neglect of the art of poetry. Asked about the origins of The Angels in the early 70s, Neeson recalled how he had written hundreds of pages of poetry as a young man, but had never been able to convince publishers, let alone publicans, of his genius. When Neeson eventually decided to change tack, and put a four piece band behind his verses, he was quickly offered pub stages from which to declaim. A record deal and a string of hit singles followed. Neeson's story can hardly be surprising - the famous versifiers of our era sing or rap. Even Seamus Heaney or Robert Bly must struggle to sell as many volumes in a lifetime as Coldplay or the Arctic Monkeys can shift in a day. Who wouldn't want to perform their verses in a rock 'n roll band?

Perversely enough, though, there has been a persistent countervailing tendency which has seen rock stars wanting to be poets, or at to least publish slim volumes of poetry as well as albums. In the 1960s Jim Morrison became notorious for his self-published collections of verse; more recently Patti Smith and Lou Reed have published some middling work. In New Zealand Andrew Fagan cast off the creative shackles of '80s glam pop darlings The Mockers to publish an execrable collection called Salt Rhythms.

Bill Direen is another muso who has turned to poetry. In the 1980s Direen was a seminal figure in New Zealand music, a guitarist, singer and songwriter who helped pioneer the low-fi, high energy 'psychedelic punk' sound associated with the Flying Nun label, and then went on to show that this sound could accomodate sophisticated songwriting as well as glorious blasts of noise. Since the early nineties, though, Direen has published a string of poems, novellas, and novels. His musical output has waned as his literary output has grown.

Why would a rock legend like Direen want to publish poetry? How can the tiny audiences, critical neglect and secondhand communication of the poetry world compete with the intimacy and acclamation of the concert, not to mention the wide distribution that albums can enjoy? I wonder whether that inevitable shrinkage of audience might be offset by a certain quality of attention often absent from the rock biz. There is something about lines of print on the vast white expanse of the page that focuses the mind - that asks for a level of scrutiny different to the sort of scrutiny one gives after drinking eleven beers and waiting until a quarter to midnight to see a band play to a crowded K Rd bar.

Perhaps Direen got sick of boozy first-year BA students at orientation gigs shouting for his biggest hit, 'Do the Alligator' (I was the guy in the third row with the Chelsea T shirt, Bill). Perhaps he tired of audiences that sung his choruses, but shuffled their feet or sucked each other's faces while he worked his way through the intricate verses of songs like 'Wanganui with a White Face' or 'Inquest'. Perhaps this is outrageous speculation on my part, and Direen considers 'Do the Alligator' a baroque masterpiece.

Whatever the reason, the fact remains that Direen's latest book of poetry asks to be read with a quality of attention quite different to the sort we would bring to the blatherings of Chris Martin or the hormonal surges of the Arctic Monkeys. Where many musos-turned-poets tend to offer lyrics-on-the-page, with predicatbly tepid results, New Sea Land offers its select band of readers a set of poems that have me reaching for adjectives like 'lapidarian' and 'labyrinthine' (anything, please, except that appallingly cliched phrase 'carefully crafted'!). Nobody will be singing along to lines like these:

smoked holiday bodies
completed the summer conjunction
between wharf piles
of north island and south
lightly boasting their saline semiology

Bill Direen is an exile from New Zealand, as well as from the music industry, and exile is the undersong of New Sea Land. The book is filled with New Zealand subject matter - with surf, bush, and blokes with fishing rods - yet it was written by a man who has for some years lived in Paris, a man who has immersed himself in the study of French literature and in his own literary endeavours, eschewing his old life on Pig Island. How can we explain this puzzling incongruity between Direen's subject matter and the life he has chosen to live? Is New Sea Land an exercise in nostalgia, or some feeble attempt to keep in touch with the surface phenomena of the 'New Zealand scene'? I don't think so.

Direen's expatriation seems part of a quest for a certain type of vision of his homeland. Keith Douglas wrote of the way that 'time's wrong-way telescope' distorts our view of the past; his image could also stand for the effect that expatriation can create in our minds. But a vision that is distorted can also be strangely enhanced.In an essay published in brief #33, Direen compared expatriation to memory loss, saying that in order to live in a new country he had to forget parts of his old life, even as he remembered other parts of that life more vividly. But a vision that is distorted can also be strangely enhanced. In New Sea Land, the familiar features of the New Zealand land and seascape appear suddenly unfamiliar. Details are isolated from one another and juxtaposed, rather than harmonised in organic 'contexts' or 'scenes'. Viewed through Direen's wrong-way telescope, the familiar appears fragmented and luminously mysterious:

a seaward wind-rush
contravenes the tide
suspense of the yawning
broken-shell-white foam
self-resolving matter

Direen has made a thorough study of French Modernism, and the manner of many of these poems suggests the influence of the 'Cubist' school of poets represented by names like Reverdy, Jacob, and Appollinaire. Like the Cubists, Direen builds his poems up out of fragments, in a manner that both approximates reality and refuses mimesis.

I should be careful not to overstate the difficulties presented by New Sea Land. The greatest of the French Cubists, Guillame Appollinaire, was famed for his ability to combine crptic imagery and a 'public', declamatory tone, so that his poems were at once hermetic and rhapsodic, a peculiar marriage of Mallarme and Whitman. In New Sea Land, too, the will to fragmentation is balanced by a frequent desire to generalise in rhapsodic metres:

sea inconsistent, inconscient
sea of mythological households
sea of bloody purposes
sea of razors without religion
sea of expectant traitors
sea of mammals and spacious cemeteries
sea of instinctive combat
sea of the moon
sea of lunacy

Unlike the windier bards of New Zealand literary nationalism, Direen is prepared to undercut his generalisations with sudden changes of tone, and precipitous descents to the obscurely particular:

a step on the stair
another day
cosmos and human consciousness
comes true
in a cup of tea

Reading these poems is like standing at the back of a hall and hearing blasts of feedback make ironic commentary on the speech from the podium. Perhaps Bill Direen hasn't left music behind after all.

You can order New Sea Land from the Titus Books website.

Grumpy bugger, gloomy bugger

A friend of mine remembers talking to a student who had Geoffrey Hill as a tutor at some British university. 'If you have Hill as a tutor, you make damn sure you get your reading done and your essay in on time' the student said. 'I mean, just look at the covers of the guy's books. He looks like he's emerging from the Cave of Blood. You don't mess with a guy like that.'

Hill has for many years held the much-contested position of Grumpiest Living Writer in English: his books are grumpily recalcitrant, full of impenetrable allusions and capricious puns, and they lament the decline of Western civilisation and the unworthiness of today's youth with all the fervour of a retired sergeant-major's letters to The Times. Why, then, should we read the old bugger? Haven't we heard it all before, in rather more accessible form? Writing about Hill's new(ish) book of poems, Scenes from Comus, Colin Burrow admits that:

None of the delights offered by this volume comes easily...Hill will repeatedly make you reach for your dictionary ("Oh damn this pondus of splenetic pride!"), but he will always make looking something up worthwhile. In the lines "Sharp-shining berries bleb a thorn, as blood | beads on a finger", most people could probably see that "bleb" means "blister". The word isn't a piece of mannered obscurity: it's perfectly fitted by its sound to its place. There is music and beauty here.

What, though, is it about? The central focus of Scenes from Comus is the emergence and suppression of sense - both in the sense of "meaning" and in the sense of "sensuality". A few years ago Hill's verse was obsessively concerned with the corruption of the language by politicians and journalists. He could often seem too angry at the weakness of his readers to want to make much contact with them. During this period Hill experimented with a number of personae, from prophet to angry old man. This collection is mellower, and its main voice is of rueful, bruised sensuousness rather than of a prophet crying in the wilderness. In Scenes from Comus Hill recognises that reader and poet alike are trying to find beauty through their senses, and he gives the impression that the poet is fighting with rather than against his readers.

Or, as the similarly recalcitrant WS Graham once wrote:

I am trying to translate the English language
into English

Samuel Beckett was famous for being not so much a grumpy as a gloomy bugger, but a new article by his old friend Edna O'Brien wants to present us with a different view of 'Sam the man'. According to O'Brien, the author of Waiting for Godot was a regular barfly:

Many people met Beckett and inevitably drank with him. It is true that he drank quite a lot and is almost certainly truer that he needed to drink, both to vivify a spirit that had "little talent for happiness" and to lessen the barrage of fellow imbibers.

O'Brien comments amusingly on Beckett's undiminished critical reputation:

It would not be unreasonable to suppose that he is now known on the moon, a region he once ruefully regarded as being the preserve of Albert Camus.

But it's rather difficult, finally, to see O'Brien's memories of Beckett as a refutation of his reputation as a gloomy old bugger:

Our last meeting was in the Pullman Hotel in Paris in 1989, a crowded venue in which he, tall and gaunt, seemed like a carved figure from some bygone civilisation, aloof from the frenzied surroundings. He asked if I agreed that the air in his arrondissement was very clean and very fresh. I couldn't in all honesty concur. The talk got around to the hereafter. I said I had a fine gravesite on an isolated island in the Shannon. After a short pause, it became clear that his remains were not bound for the cold mantled land. He told me how Donald McWhinnie had telephoned him from his deathbed, hoping for a word of wisdom.

"What did you tell him?"

"Not much," was the hapless reply.

Friday, March 10, 2006


The other night I was lying on a sofa - it was not a particularly hospitable sofa - moaning and groaning and injesting copious amounts of painkillers. A 'friend' decided to divert me by reading long passages from a book - I think it's a new book - called 'Black November: the 1918 Influenza Epidemic in New Zealand' by Geoffrey W Rice. A nightmare and this prose poem were the inevitable results.


At the edge of Temuka the road is blocked by three bales of hay, a black flag, and the last two O'Shanessy kids, who take turns holding the rifle their cousin brought back from the Somme. Outsiders get sent back to the city; Maoris are told to keep to Arowhenua pa, on the other side of the creek we dive in to wash the sickness away.

When Queenie got the cramps we took her to the small house at the back of the marae, and laid her out on clean sheets, and fetched a bucket of creekwater, and cooled her stomach and hips, and washed the mushrooms under her arms. The younger kids giggled beside the bed, expecting another baby cousin. First her fingernails then her hands turned black; her breasts swelled, popped their nipples, and dribbled blue-black milk. We couldn't straighten her arms in the coffin, so we folded them across her chest. She looked like she was diving into herself.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Inspecting the wreck

The wreck of the Maritime Union of New Zealand's campaign for cabotage is examined by a couple of commenters in this indymedia thread. I outlined some criticisms of the campaign for cabotage here a couple of months ago; what strikes me is the failure of campaigners to draw any conculsions from the spectacular lack of success they have had over the past few years. Seeing an international fishing agreement as a glimmer of hope, as MUNZ does in the press release that prompted the latest debate, seems to me pretty preposterous.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Ellis in wonderland

Over at Adventures in Histomat Snowball draws attention to a campaign to have Norman Ellis sacked from Leeds University. Ellis, who likes to quote The Bell Curve and Enoch Powell, believes that most Africans are retarded and that non-whites should be removed from Britain. Obviously I agree that the bloke is a nasty piece of work, but I worry about appeals to vice chancellors to sack academic workers for essentially ideological reasons.

The danger is that if the vice chancellor is allowed to sack people for their views then he or she will soon get around to knocking off a few obnoxious lefties. David Horowitz's neo-McCarthyite campaign to rid against academic of 'subversives' is already making noise in the US. What's to stop the right, which has always equated communism and fascism, campaigning against Marxist academics, on the grounds that they are apologists for 'totalitarianism'? What's to stop a witch hunt against anti-war movements on campus, on the grounds that supporters of Iraqi resistance to occupation are supporters of terrorism?

I think it's great that they are angry with Ellis but, even if the end result is the same, I'd prefer to see students boycotting the man's lectures, or turning up to his lectures and disrupting them by demolishing his arguments, rather than appealing to the vice chancellor to sack him.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Cows and Deerhooves

I've been meaning to draw attention to the little snakes of silver throat, which is a blog being run by Muzzlehatch, a muso, authentic working class bloke, underground publisher, and regular funder of my sojourns to Charlie's Bar and other dodgy K Rd watering holes.

Muzzlehatch's blog's title must come either from a bad porn novel or a Thomas Lovell Beddoes poem, and its content ranges from the artificial insemination of recalcitrant cows to love lyrics, sometimes in the course of the same post. Now I see that I've joined Daisy the Guernsey as a bit part player in the drama of Muzzlehatch's life: I'm immortalised as 'the big student bloke' (I'm not sure which adjective is more burdensome) in this post on the band Deerhoof, whom we saw play in the suspiciously fancy environs of K Rd's 4:20 club a couple of weeks back. Enjoy.

Carlos Latuff

You can find all sorts of riches using google image search. I was looking around for an image to use on a poster, and I stumbled upon the Social Nerve site, which has links to a fantastic collection of political images drawn from various sources. For starters, check out these old Soviet posters which found their way onto somebody's scanner, and the coruscating visions of Carlos Latuff. Latuff has a brutal directness that reminds me of the Herald's legendary Bromhead, though his politics mean you won't see his images on your breakfast table any time soon. Put them on a wall near you instead!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Identity politics

An open letter from someone named Phillip Temple has arrived in my inbox, urging me to show how proud I am to be a New Zealander by refusing to be categorised by ethnicity at the next census:

"Most people are proud of their ethnicity, heritage and family origins and so will tick whichever box they feel applies to them...Many of us however consider that we, and our families, have been in New Zealand for long enough now that we should be able to claim that as who we are... regardless of where our ancestors may have come from many centuries ago or what the colour of our skin or shape of our face might indicate. If you support us in our desire to be recognised as New Zealanders inour own country then there is only one way that this can be achieved...

On the 2006 NZ Census form, when you are asked for your ethnicity, choose the option "Other" and state your ethnicity as "New Zealander". If we can get enough people to do this then maybe, just maybe, we can get the powers that be to sit up and recognise that we are proud of who we are and that we want to be recognised as such, not divided into sub-categories and all treated as foreigners in our own will have the knowledge
that you have done your bit to help us, as New Zealanders, fight for ourright to be recognised as who we are in this proud and strong country of ours."

Why is it always white males who are most insistent about the supposed fact that 'we're all New Zealanders', and ethnic and other differences don't count? These pious folk have never had the experience of being the only person in the bar with brown skin, grimacing at a Maori joke and looking for the nearest safe exit, or of hearing their classmates laugh when their funny Asian name is read out on the roll on the first day of school.

Ethnic identities are real and important: because of the shape that our history has taken, they help set the scope and limits of the lives of many of their bearers. Phillip Temple's lack of awareness of this fact is shown by his idiotic talk of 'our proud and strong country'. I am not proud of owning a passport issued by a nation built on genocide, sustained by the gross exploitation of the Pacific and other parts of the Third World, and currently serving as a guard dog for the United States in Afghanistan. My favourite New Zealanders are people who have interrogated the identity that their place of birth gave them, rather than wallowing in jingoistic celebration of it.

Pakeha identity has to be constructed out of a coming to terms with the facts of New Zealand history and New Zealand's place in the world. Supporting the All Blacks or wearing a bone carving isn't enough. I'm for the nationalism of ARD Fairburn, who could write this paean to New Zealand:

Men and women, hands and faces; a nation established
by statute-makers, geographers, census-takers;
living like fleas in surface dust...

Our credit holds, the chain is long;
but the faithful hound has a name upon its collar;our gold was shipped away to prop
the pound against the dollar.
We are the Empire’s Junior Partner
and we have no gold: what shall we do in the day when we shall be asked for?
Nothing. We shall not be asked. We shall be told.