No cardigan required
I thought poets were supposed to believe in the imagination? Hullo, we live in a barren boring age where there are too many facts: why do we need to make the past as boring as the present where there are no facts we can argue about!!? At least with prehistory we can let our imaginations 'run wild'. At least we can believe in visions of the past that are poetic and not the boring tracts of academics.
I am in favour of imagination not cardigan wearers.
The pseudo-historians who believe that Celts or Chinese or little green men were the first settlers of New Zealand sometimes accuse their critics of 'taking the mystery' out of the study of the past. If you listen to the likes of Martin Doutre and Kerry Bolton, then Kiwi historians, archaeologists, and museum curators are a bunch of killjoys, who want to substitute a dry, straightforward narrative of the past for the poetry and wonder of books like Ancient Celtic New Zealand and New Zealand's White Warrior Tribe.
But real history is always much more interesting than the counterfeit item which Doutre et al offer for sale. Where the works of pseudo-historians tend to rely on wild speculation and the sort of paranoid, racist rhetoric found on the far right throughout the world, the writings of trained scholars of the past are rich in detail, and are often tremendously suggestive. A very detailed historical narrative, or a quite technical write-up of an archaeological dig can throw up all sorts of intriguing questions, even as it rattles off facts and figures in dry, functional prose.
And it's not just facts but interpretations which can be a source of mystery and questioning: the basic outline of twentieth century New Zealand history, for instance, has a clarity which seventeenth century New Zealand history will never have, yet it raises just as many questions.
In a piece for Landfall last year, I discussed the debates which have raged over whether or not New Zealand came close to revolution during the Great Strike of 1913. During the strike workers and police fought gun battles on the streets of Wellington, a group of miners on the West Coast proclaimed the formation of a revolutionary government, and 'special policemen' - in reality, drunken farmers on horseback, armed with long batons - charged the picket lines that blocked access to the wharves of Auckland.
Commentators agree upon the basic facts pertaining to the violent confrontation between the 'Red' Federation of Labour and the right-wing Massey government, but they differ over whether the Federation's members were determined revolutionaries seeking to overthrow capitalism or moderates who sought only a better deal within the existing system.
Michael King always argued strenuously for the latter interpretation, insisting that the Federation's most radical leaders were born and bred overseas, and out of touch with the opinions of the average Kiwi worker. In his fine book Coal, Class and Community Len Richardson disagreed, and called 1913 a year of 'revolutionary turmoil'.
More recently, James Belich has also insisted that 1913 was a year of revolutionary convulsions. In his book Paradise Reforged, he even likened the Great Strike to the revolutions that shook Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918.
Like most scraps about the past, the debate over 1913 is of more than antiquarian interest.
The way we see our past helps determine the decisions we make about our future. If New Zealand's working class has never displayed the revolutionary qualities glimpsed in nations like Russia, Germany, and Venezuela, then local advocates of ideologies which look to workers to transform society seem to have a difficult task ahead of them.
On the other hand, if there really was a time when workers were at one with the slogans of the radical left, then one of the oldest rhetorical props of the social democratic left - the appeal to the moderate, commonsense nature of the 'average Kiwi worker' - is endangered. It is no coincidence that Michael King was a long-time member of the Labour Party, whereas Len Richardson is a long-time Marxist.
On the ninetieth anniversary of the Great Strike in 2003 the tensions between the positions represented by King and Richardson burst into the open in Auckland. When trade union leaders like Unite's Matt McCarten teamed up with police to commemorate the anniversary of the great battle between capital and labour many rank and file trade unionists were angered.
McCarten's critics felt that the brutal behaviour of the police during the strike, and the murder of Federation of Labour member Fred Evans a year earlier at Waihi, meant that a police presence at commemorations was inappropriate. More generally, they felt that trade union leaders should not be too chummy with the people who are charged with the state with protecting employers' property and - on occasion - breaking up workers' picket lines. Dissident members of Unite and other unions organised an angry picket of the commemoration. They produced a leaflet laying out their own interpretation of the events of 1913 and handed it to the union leaders and academics joining the police at the event.
Studying the past does not mean swallowing some imaginary academic orthodoxy: it means entering into a series of debates which are are still very much relevant. And, so far as I know, the cardigans are optional.