Hone vs Hillary
Here's an article on two recently deceased Kiwis (relax, Mr Devlin and co, neither of them was named Bernard Gadd) which Dave Bedggood has written for the next issue of Class Struggle, together with a response from Richard Taylor. Tell them what you think in the comments box. I haven't got time today, but I'll post my ten cents' worth about Hone and Hillary later in the week.
Who's a national hero then?
The one who famously "knocked off" Mt Everest and then spent the rest of his life 'nation building' in New Zealand, India and Nepal?
What about the other bloke, the boiler maker who, joined the Communist Party and wrote great working class poetry for fifty years?
When he died, Hillary got special newspaper supplements and dedicated programs on TV and Radio, and a state funeral. Tuwhare got a few articles and notices in the media and a special mention from the PM who loves 'the Arts'. But middle NZ did not queue in their thousands to be photographed viewing his coffin.
It says something sad about New Zealand that ordinary people invested such value in the humble beekeeper as their examplar of New Zealand before sport was mixed with politics and international brands.
What they forget is that in his day Hillary was sponsored by the British Empire. He played the role of the Kiwi colonial who scaled Everest 5 years after India's independence to become an instant Knight of the Garter. He was the handsome poster-boy for the British way of life even while he seemed to thumb his nose at it.
The humble bee-keeper became the model of the 'better Brit" in New Zealand. Such national pride when he beat the Brits at their own game and stole a march to the South Pole in his converted farm tractors. He converted the sponsors when he went to look for the 'Yeti' in the upper Ganges. His national fame wasn’t the celebrity of personal gain but selfless sacrifice. That’s why the Sherpas made him a God.
In New Zealand Hillary had to be a God too as he straddled an ever-widening social crevasse. On the one side the working class, on the other the ruling class.
He projected on the world stage the Labour Party ideology of 'nation building'. But this Labourist ideal was always utopian. New Zealand has not de-colonised, has not settled the Treaty grievances and land loss, still has the British Queen as head of state, and the SAS troops in Afghanistan kill freedom fighters on behalf of US imperialism.
Any embodiment of this impossible dream in the life of one man has to fail. We can understand why this must be so by looking at the life of the 'other' hero, Hone Tuwhare.
Tuwhare is the 'other' hero, a Maori in Aotearoa, the working class poet, who gives the rude ‘up yours’ to Labour's nationalist fantasy. Unlike the Nepalese, who survive as an independent Kingdom, his Ngapuhi iwi, has lost most of its land and some of its mountains. There are no Hillarys patronising this rural poverty.
Tuwhare does not leave his farm to climb mountains in other countries. He is separated from his mountain by empire and does not subscribe to the myths of de-colonisation. He trains as a boilermaker in NZ Railways and joins the Communist Party. He joins the movement for Maori self determination in the land march of 1975.
He rails against racism in NZ and South Africa. He sides with workers against the classless utopia. He takes his poetry into the factories, schools and the pubs. He leaves the Communist Party because he objects to the Red army invading Hungary in 1956. He rejoins and travels to China, and is expelled for some breach of Stalinist 'discipline'.
In one of his better-known poems, he laments the Maori figure standing in the gully at the bottom of Queen St and not beside Micky Savage on Bastion Point commanding the view of the Waitemata out to the Pacific. He rubs the nose of the prudish patriarchy in his raw sexuality. His is an art of insidious cultural resistance and his audience is the mass of workers who instinctively respond to his rude, honest, full-on fingering of capitalism.
That is the heroic difference; Maori self determination and the working class life disrespectful of bourgeois pieties, the cult of the individual, and the myths of national unity and international social welfare.
The working class heroes are those who fight the battles of workers and who sing the praises of workers. The bourgeois heroes are those who glorify the self-important citizen of ANZAC, defender of empire, the modern missionaries and standard bearers of barbarous ‘civilisation’. Hillary is a 'national hero' because he stands astride the class divide of the bourgeois nation and injects some humanity into the alienated individual in capitalist society.
Tuwhare is the working class hero because he puts a fist up to strike such myths and lies and reveals the true ideas and repressed feelings at the heart of existence. Centuries after the statues of Hilary have been drowned by the sea, the words and gestures of Tuwhare will live on.
Richard Taylor responds:
Excellently put. It puts in words my own feelings. I was annoyed that relatively little attention was payed to the death of a great poet and a member of the working class as against the rather conventional Hillary. Tuwhare is a working class hero and a hero (or perhaps a model or an inspiration) to young Maori (or young others - to anyone) and others in New Zealand - that he was socialist or a communist should not be downplayed by nervous or "politically correct" academics...
I never met Hillary - I have no doubt he was a great and decent fellow, albeit one who overdid the "White Man's burden" role. But I met Hone - he was a great character - we both worked - at different times - in the Otahuhu Railway Workshops. I also worked in many places similar to Hone - in other words with workers - and I protested the Vietnam War, Apartheid (when I was batoned in the face) along with him.
Once I read poem i used to perfom to him and he listened politely - and then gave a great belly laugh - which was OK. Different poets and cultures, but still we had much in common...I remember Hone reading a poem about the statue of the Maori warrior at university in 1991 or so, when I was there as an adult student. He was well received. I am reading his poetry just now.