Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Through goblin forest

Skyler and I recently made our second trip to Pureora Forest Park, the sprawl of ancient podocarps preserved by the efforts of tree-climbing hippies back in the late 1970s.

The two highest peaks in the park are Pureora, which rises to 1165 metres, and the nearby Titiraupenga, which is slightly lower.
These mountains help to mark the western edge of the rohe of the Tainui peoples, and they were close to the border of the Rohe Potae, or 'Country of the Hat', which existed as a de facto independent state in the central North Island between 1864 and 1883.
The high plain that borders the forest on the north has a strange quality, especially when a dry summer drains it of colour. The porous limestone rocks of the King Country and the hard volcanic rocks thrown up by the repeated eruptions that made Lake Taupo are scattered across sheep country that has been unwisely converted into dairy farmland in recent years. In between the farms are blocks of doomed radiata pine, planted when the pumice soil of the plain was not thought capable of sustaining sheep, let alone cows.

The track to the summit of Pureora starts about seven hundred metres up, at the edge of a road built to take logging trucks to the radiata. The rimu and matai (red and black native pines) on either side of the road grow as high as eighty feet. Some isolated trees are protected in the midst of radiata and farmland; through the mist, they look like giants striding south, back to the safety of the virgin forest.

As the track climbs higher up the northern side of Pureora, the huge podocarps drop away, and a so-called 'goblin forest' begins. The air is damp, and epiphytes and creepers hang from or scale the trunks and branches of smaller trees. In A Ride Through the Disturbed Districts of New Zealand, his ill-tempered portrait of the wartorn North Island of 1870, Herbert Mead remembers the goblin forest of Pureora with a certain dread:

There is a silence peculiar to the forest...Brilliant parasites and creepers hang from the uppermost boughs of the loftiest trees, straight as cathedral bell-ropes...It is absence of living things that renders the silence and solitude of these woods so oppressive...this is the silence of the dead, or of something waiting to be born.
The pumice soil of the Pureora area absorbs water very slowly, so that swamps and lagoons form easily, even in the midst of high-altitude bush. These 'mountain mires' are exceptional in New Zealand, where most wetlands are found at low altitude. Trampers have to watch their step.
From the top of Pureora, the forest stretches away to the south, bordered on the east by Lake Taupo and on the west by the scruffy farms of the King Country.

The forest that surrounds and scales Pureora was an important resource for Tainui, but relatively little archaeological work has been done in its depths. Aerial surveys revealed a number of interesting sites, but it was only in 1994, at the urging of the Waitangi Tribunal, that some archaeologists got around to bushcrashing the place and doing a basic site survey. Even now, there is very little published information about the history of human activities in Pureora. And it's not only the boffins who seem to have neglected the area: during the three hours it took us to get to the top of Mt Pureora and down again, we didn't see any other trampers.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


I was tied up for part of last week writing an internal document about plans for the 'restructuring' of Auckland museum which newbie Director Vanda Vitali announced a fortnight back. A Herald forum on the subject has produced some interesting responses.

I can't share what I've written yet, but I did make a post a year or so ago about why I like Auckland's museum so much. The post was written before I started working there, and it is a little sentimental, but it still sums up some of my feelings about the place.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rallying for Roger

I blogged last week about the sudden and shocking death of Roger Fox . Roger's funeral was remarkable for the number and variety of the people who turned up to share memories, anecdotes, jokes, and handkerchiefs. The three hundred attendees far outnumbered the seats available in the funeral parlour in industrial West Auckland; relatively young folks like me ended up giving up our places for old trade unionists and East Timor activists and standing through the long ceremony. The entire spectrum of the left, from green to deepest red, was on display, and Buddhist, Catholic, and Pentecostal prayers were all said on Roger's behalf. 'The Internationale' was sung, but so were 'Amazing Grace', a short tribute in Maori, and a suite of songs written in Samoan especially for Roger by grieving relatives.

Roger was always a passionate advocate of the open mike at meetings and rallies, and when Master of Ceremonies Dave Bedggood opened the mike in his honour a long queue of speakers soon formed. So many people wanted to pay tribute to Roger that the reception that followed the funeral had to be truncated, and yours truly couldn't take full advantage of the free food.

After the reception's untimely end, a bunch of us piled into cars and a bus and drove north to Kaukapakapa, the beautiful Kaipara village close to the farm where Roger grew up. As Roger was buried in the leafy yard of an old Anglican church, next to the brother he lost thirty years ago, a group of Buddhists chanted for the safe passage of his soul, Jared Philips laid a Unite union badge on his coffin, and Dave read a statement from Latin American Trotskyists which ended 'Viva Roger Fox!' No funeral is good, but this one was a worthy tribute to a life well lived.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Andrew's Alien

Andrew 'love machine' Maitai has popped up occasionally on this blog as the proprietor of Powertool Records and the drummer in the latest incarnation of Bill Direen's legendary backing band, The Builders. Now the big man is adding a new string to his bow, by opening a store full of slashing-edge music and books in the industrial heart of New Lynn.

Named after a famous Direen ditty, Alien has its inaugural birthday party later today:

Powertool Records Presents......

An Alien Afternoon
of FREE live music featuring

Saturday 23rd February, 3pm at Alien, 11 Veronica St, New Lynn
(next to Mag & Turbo)

Check out the cool new shop selling cds, vinyl, books, jewellery and fashion items. Specials on both Vorn and Puddle cds and merchandise.

Kiwi music aficianados will recognise George Henderson's outfit The Puddle as one of the longest-surviving purveyors of the 'Dunedin sound' that was associated with Flying Nun Records back in the '80s. They did, and probably still do, a mean cover of Syd Barrett's 'Candy and a Currant Bun'. After doing some hard time in Invercargill Prison, Henderson should have plenty of new material to play at Alien.

If you can't make it later today, don't despair - Andrew's planning a series of in-store gigs at Alien over the comings months. Step this way for the details.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Remembering Barry Barclay

Bernard Gadd, Hone Tuwhare, Sir Ed, Roger Fox, and now Barry Barclay - it's been a bad couple of months, hasn't it, my friends?

Barclay was probably best-known as the first Maori to direct a feature film. Made in the mid-80s, a time when industry was closing down all over the Kiwi heartland, Ngati explored the lives of a small East Coast community threatened with the loss of its freezing works. The film's rather sentimental conclusion sees the works being saved, after the suits sit down with the workers and a deal is reached. If only, Barry.

I will remember Barclay for The Feathers of Peace, the docudrama he made in the late '90s about the history of the Moriori, the tchkakat henu (indigenous people) of the Chatham Islands. Barclay based his movie on Michael King's Moriori: a People Rediscovered, but he replaced King's careful linear narrative with a series of frightening and exhilerating leaps backwards and forwards through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Like Peter Watkins' 1974 classic Culloden, The Feathers of Peace re-enacts rather than describes the events of the past. Barclay presents the 1835 Ngati Tama-Ngati Mutunga conquest of the Chathams, in particular, as a sort of breaking news story. His characters - venereal sealers, invading Maori, enslaved Moriori, cynical English administrators - speak directly to the camera. They are interrogated, but they also interrogate us, undermining our assumptions about New Zealand history by revealing the past in its brutal otherness. The more we understand them, the less able we are to subject them to glib generalisations.

In one scene, a Ngati Tama invader takes a break from killing Moriori to talk to the camera. He acknowledges that the pacifist Moriori have offered no resistance, but justifies his actions by citing the twenty years of fighting that his iwi has experienced in the Musket Wars that began shortly after Maori contact with Europeans. We come to understand that the Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga have themselves experienced something of the ferocity that they are visiting upon the Moriori. They are displaced peoples, as much as invaders. In forty years, after the defeat of armed Maori resistance to British colonisation, both iwi will adopt the pacifist beliefs of Te Whiti - beliefs which resonate in important ways with the Moriori doctrine they had mocked. Barclay's own commentary ties the movie together without reducing it to a morality tale. His voice does not drown out the korero of his subjects.

In the 1990s, when the very existence of Moriori was a topic of hot debate amongst Maori as well as Pakeha, and some Ngati Mutunga on the Chathams were vigorously denying their own history, The Feathers of Peace was a triumph of passionate but utterly unsentimental film-making. The method of The Feathers of Peace is as important as its message. With its mixture of documentary and drama, historical fact and fictional detail, cool-handed analysis and poetic metaphor, the film ought to inspire writers as well as movie-makers.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Roger Fox 1957-2008

From the late 1970s until his sudden death last Thursday, Roger Fox was a pillar of left-wing activism in New Zealand. Roger was arrested at Auckland airport for demanding East Timorese independence, batoned and imprisoned on the East Coast during the 1981 Springbok tour, and thrown into a paddy wagon outside Auckland's British consulate after the invasion of Iraq. His first loyalty was to the union movement, but he was active in a huge number of campaigns, from the movement against genocide in East Timor to the fight for Maori land rights to the struggle to end discrimination against disabled New Zealanders. Roger stood on hundreds of picket lines, and spoke to scores of rallies and meetings.

Sometimes activism brought Roger into the spotlight - in 2005, for instance, he ended up on the front page of the New Zealand Herald after gatecrashing one of Don Brash's (in)famous speeches to the Orewa Rotary Club. Usually, though, Roger worked behind the scenes, at the grassroots of trade unions, United Fronts, and community organisations. For him, activism was about discussions in committee meeting rooms, poster runs on weeknights, door knocking in the rain, and leafleting stopwork meetings.

It was hard, unglamorous work, but Roger was indefatigable. He maintained his activism in the face of police intimidation, surveillance from the Security Intelligence Service, personal tragedies, falling-outs with other comrades, ugly encounters with Stalinist politics, and the serious defeats which the left suffered in the 1980s and '90s. Many other activists burned out, or retreated to the minutae of theory, or discovered the virtues of the free market; Roger persisted with his leaflet drops, his soapbox speeches, and his door knocking. The tenacity and energy Roger showed through so many difficult years makes his sudden death from a heart attack at the age of only fifty doubly shocking.

Roger grew up on a dairy farm in the Kaipara. After moving to Auckland to attend university in the mid-70s, though, he fell in love with city life. Roger liked to talk self-deprecatingly about his first attempt at political activism: appalled by Indonesia's genocidal conquest of East Timor, he put on a balaclava, nailed together and painted a placard, and staged a secret, one-man demonstration outside the Indonesian consulate in Auckland. 'I was completely innocent about collective action and the ABCs of the labour movement, then', he remembered.

Roger learned his ABCs during the crisis-ridden years of the late '70s and early '80s, when an unpopular but deeply cynical Muldoon government clung to power by a combination of draconian price and wage controls, redbaiting, and Maori-bashing. Roger's old friend Peter Gleeson recalled that the struggle by Auckland Maori to win back Bastion Point was a turning point in Roger's political evolution. 'When I first met Roger at university he was a fairly conservative chap', Peter remembered. 'He wore these awful long shorts and wanted to be an accountant. I think he went up Bastion Point during the occupation to find out what all the fuss was about. He found out what all the fuss was about.'

Roger's involvement in the campaign to win back Bastion Point paved the way for his involvement in the protests against the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. His marriage to a Samoan New Zealander deepened his contacts with the Polynesian community and his involvement in anti-racist politics.

In the 1980s, Roger found a temporary political home in the Communist Party of New Zealand. He was attracted by the party's militancy, and the fact that the vast majority of its members were blue collar workers with deep roots in the union movement. Roger learnt some valuable lessons from these members about the importance of workplace organising, but he quickly became disturbed by the party's admiration for Stalin and for the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. When the demented Hoxha killed his second in command for being a 'CIA-KGB spy', Roger raised the issue inside his Communist Party branch. 'It was like farting in church', he remembered.

Parting company with the Hoxhaites, Roger decided that Trotsky rather than Stalin represented the true spirit of the Bolshevik revolution. To the end of his life, Roger would be a stern opponent of Stalinism in the left and the labour movement, and a tireless proponent of grassroots democracy in unions, political parties, and United Fronts. Unusually, though, Roger complemented his admiration for Trotsky with a strong interest in Buddhism. Roger was particularly drawn to Theravada Buddhism, a religious and philosophical tradition which is strong in Burma. Roger would sometimes go straight from a political meeting to a gathering at his local temple; to the alarm of both his political comrades and his fellow Buddhists, he liked to argue that Buddhism and Marxism were doctrines that naturally complemented each other. 'Marxism is for the material side of my life, and Buddhism is for the other side', he explained.

From the late seventies until the end of his life, Roger was affected by the strange, cruel disease known as manic depression. Roger’s illness meant that he rarely worked for a wage; he liked to think of himself as a professional activist. I remember a heckler approaching an anti-war protest outside the US consulate and shouting ‘Get a job, you bloody lefties’; Roger’s immediate response was ‘Sorry, comrade – I’m on strike for life against the Protestant work ethic!’ Roger’s illness gave him a deep empathy with other vulnerable and marginalised members of society, and he worked tirelessly to befriend and politicise mentally ill and physically disabled people. After he joined the Alliance several years ago the party recognised his insights by making him its Spokesperson for Disabilities.

During the eighties and nineties Roger was repeatedly hospitalised, but in the last years of his life he suffered far fewer of the uncontrollable highs and deep lows associated with his condition. In the past couple of years he seemed to have reached something like a point of balance, and to be more at peace with himself than ever before. Roger took great pride in his wide circle of friends and his beautiful, gifted daughter. He talked optimistically about the future.

I got to know Roger after joining the Anti Imperialist Coalition, a United Front of groups and individuals that coalesced in the aftermath of 9/11 to oppose George Bush’s imperialist War of Terror as well as Osama bin Laden's atrocities. Roger threw himself into the AIC with a passion. Our Wednesday night meetings were, he said, the highlight of his week, and he would prepare meticulously for them. Roger was particularly excited by the involvement of Auckland’s Middle Eastern communities in the new movement. He was soon leafleting the local mosque and bringing members of the Iraqi and Pakistani communities to our meetings. We were not surprised by this - Roger was renowned inside the AIC for his ability to make new political contacts and get them along to meetings. Almost every week he would have a new face to introduce to us.

Roger was also renowned for thinking one or two steps ahead of the rest of us. If we organised a successful street meeting, Roger would be discussing the need for a march. If we distributed a leaflet, Roger would be talking about the prospects for a newspaper. If we persuaded a union to pledge support for the anti-war movement, Roger would be making the argument for a general strike against the war. At the beginning of 2002, when the movement against the invasion of Afghanistan had dissipated and Bush’s foreign policy seemed triumphant, Roger was already predicting the invasion of Iraq and talking of the need to prepare for the rise of a massive new anti-war movement.

Roger’s intensity could sometimes mean he made mountains out of molehills. I remember him standing in front of the AIC demanding that we take a vote on the ‘crucial question’ of the arrangement of the plastic chairs in our meeting room. Roger was adamantly opposed to the ‘bourgeois’ practice of arranging the chairs in a large circle – he wanted them in rows instead. ‘The circle symbolises completion’, Roger complained, ‘and we want this organisation to grow. I should have the right to sit in the back row, and read the newspaper, and pick my nose, without everybody else seeing me...that’s labour movement discipline, and besides, this circle seating reminds me of the therapy groups in psych hospital’. The meeting dissolved into laughter; Roger was eventually able to crack a smile.

I had my last conversation with Roger after one of last year’s protests against the police invasion of Tuhoe Country and the imprisonment of the Urewera 16. After marching to a big rally outside Mt Eden Prison, some friends and I ducked into a nearby pub for a few beers, then trekked back to Queen Street to our car. On our way back we spotted Roger outside the Town Hall with a small group of Tuhoe who were waiting for a bus back to the Ureweras. In between finishing off some of their food, Roger was giving his new friends and everybody else within earshot a good-humoured lecture about the way to defeat the New Zealand state and free the Urewera 16. ‘We can’t rely on the media or on John Minto or any other big leader’, Roger insisted, waving a half-eaten orange in one hand. ‘We need the grassroots. Democracy, direct action, and LABOUR MOVEMENT DISCIPLINE! It’s ordinary people that change the world.’

That last sentence ought to go on Roger Fox's gravestone.

You can find the details of Roger's funeral and other tributes to the man here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

When friends fall out

I wanted to post at length about the near-assassination of Jose-Ramos Horta but, since I haven't got time, I've reproduced this photograph, which shows Horta with the man who died trying to kill him this week. It was not taken last year, when Horta met Alfredo Reinado to try to negotiate his surrender, but in 2006, when Horta, Xanana Gusmao and the Australian government were close allies of Reinado.

Along with a few others, including a bloke named John Pilger, I've argued (see here, here, and here, for starters) Horta and his mates in the Howard government used Reinado to co-opt a mutiny by Timorese troops from the west of the country, and turn it into a campaign against Mari Alkatiri's Fretilin government. The mutiny, which had begun because of legitimate complaints about discrimination against Timorese from the west, turned into a fatricidal conflict that set Dili ablaze and divided the police as well as the army along regional lines. After Horta had used the chaos and the resultant Anzac intervention to take power, he had little use for Reinado, and the two soon fell out.

There's a certain bleak irony, then, in this week's assassination attempt. Reinado and his ragtag band of rebels remind me a little of a miniature version of the Filipino group Abu Sayyaf, or even of Osama bin Laden's boys. All three outfits were cultivated by foreign powers because they promised to advance the aims of Western foreign policy, and all three eventually 'went rogue' and bit the hand that fed them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A call from Bill

The legendary Bill Direen has sent out a call for contributions to his elegant journal Percutio:

Inspired in part by Richard Taylor's EYELIGHT web site, the next Percutio is asking people to write on the theme of "guiding lights" -- what "enlightens" people in their chosen arts today. Once it was popular to talk of having an "ideology", recently the terms "poetics" has had a new lease of life, being applied to all the disciplines.

Some work intuitively, some aleatorically, some are firmly based upon some ideology or other. There are experimentalists among us, post-structuralists, avant-gardists, and those who reject all three of these categories.

There are communists among us, comrades, capitalists, competitionists, provocateurs and (many without knowing it) constitutional monarchists.

How do we work in terms of such "frame-ologies"?

And religion? I'll be trying to write something on this, and it would be interesting to have your responses to the religious forces of our education. Or the "ideal-ology" of such. The ideals posited before us, which we (many of us) felt obliged to reject, or to espouse. Refusing to reject, believing, not blindly, but purely, is also an inspiration, and enlightening cause of art and "industry". So BELIEF! The placebo power is strong, as strong in some cases as the drug used to cure. Belief is strong. Is it all really more to do with believing in something.

And THE industry... where does that come into the whole thing. I mean "industry standards". They are necessary as guides, but have to be treated as challenging limitations, don't you think?

And superstition! Wouldn't someone dare to write a poem or a treatise upon the superstitions of artists and writers. Rock stars have many, the lucky pair of socks, or underpants or guitar! But do we not all have that lucky pen, that incredible thing that helps us to generate the creative spacio-temporal condition.

Responses can be poetic or essays or whatever. Send them to

Percutio 2008 will be launched in Dunedin in August. I have a feeling it will be a fascinating issue. It has been an honour to have had contributions of such high quality already for 2006 and 2007. As for responses in France and Germany, they have been particularly encouraging and copies have been archived in Europe as promised.

Hoping to hear from you,

best to you all!

Bill Direen

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Confronting the pseudo-historians

I've been doing it online , but these folks have have hit the streets of South Auckland.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

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.

Saturday, February 09, 2008


Last weekend Skyler and I headed down to Rotorua, where trans-Tasman Marxist polymath Mike Beggs and his lovely partner Raych were getting married in the middle of a redwood forest. When we stumbled upon the scene, it looked like

a) 'something out of a fairytale', according to Skyler, or like

b) 'one of those old newsreels showing the leaders of obsolete European countries signing treaties in some obscure border wood', according to yours truly, who 'always has to ruin everything with an inappropriate similie'.

Later, as everybody drank free beer beside the filled-in pools at the Blue Baths spa, Mike's frighteningly erudite comrades from the Political Economy Department of the University of Sydney taunted me with elaborations of the finer points of autonomist Marxist theory and jokes about the New Zealand cricket team. A good time was had by all. In the morning Skyler and I navigated through the mists of hangovers to another, emptier forest. The Pureora Forest Park covers eighty thousand hectares of pumice plateau and low mountains to the west of Lake Taupo. Verged by doomed plantations of exotic pine and windy tussock, its podocarps - rimu, matai, and tawa - rise almost one hundred metres, mocking the metal powerlines beside the dusty roads that slide off Highway 32 toward Tauamaranui. In the late '70s some of the tallest trees were climbed by bolshie hippies, who were determined to keep Rob Muldoon's chainsaws out. Hone Tuwhare decided against joining them, but he did write an angry poem against the government's policy of logging virgin bush and replacing it with radiata pine:

Guvment Agencies

Have given Private Enterprise

Permission for to strip

And rip-off Kauri, Totara,

Kahikatea for to supply

Timber for million-dollar

Yachts and mansion


Stop your raping of the land.

Protests helped ensure that the park wa closed to logging after 1978. The old logging road into the park has been turned into a walking track, and the site of one of the treetop protests has been preserved for visitors. The difference between rimu and radiata is the difference between two versions of the world.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Happy birthday to the great divagator

Rumour has it that Richard Taylor, Panmure's greatest living postmodernist, author of Conversation with a Stone, and proprietor of one of the most remarkably original blogs you will ever see (scroll down through the posts and let your mind run wild), turned sixty last weekend.

Whether or not that's true, one thing is certain - the man that Jack Ross named 'the great divagator' hasn't lost his touch:

Date: Mon, 04 Feb 2008 17:10:49 +1300
To:"Scott Hamilton"
From:"Titus Books"
Subject: Taylor
after leaving six continuous messages on my answer machine Richard
spoke the immortal line 'these machines are not very good for

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Remembering Tuwhare

I work part-time at the information desk beside the Maori Court in Auckland's museum; I wasn't there when Tuwhare died a couple of weeks ago, but one of my co-workers commemorated him by placing piles of copies of 'Rain' and 'No Ordinary Sun' on the desk, and by laminating and mounting this timeline of the man's life. When I came to work the next day, I noticed a group of the museum's security guards huddled in a corner, passing Tuwhare's poems around and discussing them excitedly. I can't imagine poems by Allen Curnow or Kendrick Smithyman or any of New Zealand's other great twentieth century poets getting the same response.

Tributes to Tuwhare have tended to focus on the wide appeal of his poems, and on his 'man of the people' persona: Hone Harawira said that he 'could say what people felt in their bones'; Willie Jackson noted Hone's chiefly lineage, and told talkback radio listeners that the poet was the embodiment of Maori culture; and the estimable Tim Bowron told readers of his Socialist Democracy blog that Tuwhare was amongst the first Kiwi writers to 'find a voice' which was 'rooted in the people and landscape of New Zealand'.

It's easy enough to complicate the stock tribute to Tuwhare. Those who imagine the great man as some sort of straightforward Maori nationalist might be surprised to know that his first-ever publication was a shrill, strange letter to The People's Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party of New Zealand, in which Hone condemned his own father for planning to run on a Maori nationalist ticket in the Northern Maori electorate during the election of 1943. Toeing the party line, which was to give total support to Labour and the war effort, Hone argued that his 'crackpot' Dad's candidacy would give heart Hitler and set back the cause of the Soviet Union. I'm not sure if Field Marshall Stalin was losing too much sleep in his dacha on the night they counted the Northern Maori ballot.

And anybody who believes that Tuwhare was some sort of intuitive, strictly vernacular poet - a sort of Maori John Clare - ought to examine his early work more closely. The poems in his first book No Ordinary Sun were published three decades after Frank Sargeson and other members of the 'thirties generation' vernacularised NZlit, yet they are very formal both in language and design:

Your sap shall not rise again
to the moon’s pull.
No more incline a deferential head
to the wind’s talk, or stir
to the tickle of coursing rain.

Your former shagginess shall not be
wreathed with the delightful flight
of birds nor shield
nor cool the ardour of unheeding
lovers from the monstrous sun.

Not exactly the sort of talk you hear down the Mangakino Tavern, is it, Tim? It was only in the 1970s, when a new generation of poets fed on the Beats and Black Mountain had brought the ampersand and the four-letter word into the canon, that Hone really let his hair down, and achieved the casual yet lyrical tone which marks his best poems.

I've talked about Hone's 1943 letter and the extreme artifice of his early poems because they are puzzles that can only be explained with reference to his membership of the Communist Party. A lot of the obituarists have neglected this subject, preferring to focus on 'safer' aspects of his political history, especially his involvement in Maori land rights activism and his campaigns to protect the environment. Those were and are very important causes, but I think the neglect of 'Hone the commie' is a mistake because, even if he eventually rejected some of the party's core ideas, Tuwhare was in many ways formed intellectually by his time in the organisation. But I'm getting ahead of myself, as usual. I'll save the details of the argument for another day. I was going to post a poem which I wrote a couple of weeks ago.


Tangaroa scuttles whales
and beaches fleets of dolphins,
Rehua flies moreporks
into an overpass,
Tane sends chainsaws
to chew on totara:
let’s face it, Hone,
the Gods are bloody stupid.
They give, and they take
away. They were stupid
again, this week.

I’m drinking Hone Hikoi
in the Harlequin Bar,
watching the TV,
watching them dig your hole.

Hine-nui-te-po was a bird
in the pub at Mangakino.
Not the blonde,
not the brunette, whatever
their names were –
the other one,
the one with the dampness
of the earth in her veins
The one with the blackhead
on her chin -
the one filling an ashtray
in the corner of the pub,
under the dartboard
that had lost its numbers.

You ignored her,
but she was watching.
At closing time she sidled home
to sew you a suit.
She had to leave room,
knowing you’d fill out,
with Common Room sausage rolls
and literary dinners,
with Kaka Point homebrew
and with hot air.
Years, decades passed,
but the suit was waiting.
You’re wearing it now
as they squeeze you into the hole.

To write is to take
some little thing from death,
from Hine-nui-te-po,
'the Great Lady of Night'.
You took a dozen toi toi
and the rain on
a corrugated roof;
the Southern Ocean
and the walk down Highway One.
You left her a mound of earth
on the edge of Kaikohe,
and noon traffic backing up
to Ngawha Springs.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Bernard's fling with TINA

Here's a quick response to the interesting discussions under my posts on Quest for Security and Bernard Gadd. I think I perhaps didn't explain clearly enough what I see as the tragic irony of the elderly Gadd's critique of biculturalism and his attempts to rewrite nineteenth century history.

Bernard Gadd was a fierce opponent of the right-wingers who used the notorious 'TINA' (There Is No Alternative) argument to justify their 'reforms' in the '80s and '90s. He contested their claims that the choice Kiwis faced in that period was either the crisis-ridden society Muldoon presided over or the ruthless 'modernisation' represented by Rogernomics. Of course, there were numerous areas of New Zealand society and the New Zealand economy which needed to change after voters tossed Muldoon out - but there was an alternative to what the Rogernomes practiced. I think all of those commenting here are agreed on that point.

I think the essay Gadd submitted to brief is a tragic document because it applies the sort of false dichotomy and straw man arguments of the neo-liberals he despised to nineteenth century New Zealand history.

Gadd wants us to choose between pre-contact Maori society, on the one hand, and British imperialism, on the other. He makes imperialism synonymous with development. If you don't accept the enclosure of Maori land and the imposition of British capitalism and culture then, according to Gadd, you are some hopeless Romantic who wants to go and live in an idealised bush Eden. (Gadd's picture of pre-contact Maori society is also simplified and unfair, but we'll talk about that another time.)

Gadd makes his highly simplistic opposition between imperialism-progress and anti-imperialism-backwardness into a prism through which he views nineteenth century New Zealand history. And, because his starting assumption is radically wrong, all his statements about the particulars of nineteenth century New Zealand history are also way off the mark.

Gadd makes a couple of asides acknowledging the brutal nature of imperialism, but he nonetheless regards it as inevitable and 'objectively' progressive. I'm very sorry, he says, but one can't make an omlete without breaking a few eggs.

The truth is that, just as there were different and better ways of modernising New Zealand's economy and reforming its society in the '80s and '90s, so there were far better ways of modernising Maori society in the 19th century.

Imperialism 'modernised' Maori by killing many of them, taking swathes of their land, and driving them to the margins of the economy. Before the wars of the 1860s and '70s, Maori had been controlling the process of modernisation. Gadd claims that they were incapable of feeding the country on the land they owned, and that therefore, according to pseudo-Marxist 'iron laws of history' that Marx himself rejected, Maori had to be expropriated by the British.

Gadd can't explain why in the early 1860s a market gardening economy was booming in the Waikato Kingdom, and feeding frustrated would-be settlers in Auckland and other Pakeha-dominated parts of the North Island. He can't explain why flour mills were being built from Matamata to Mokau, and why Maori were buying their own fleets of ships to deliver exports not only to Auckland but to Sydney.

The same sort of phenomenon was observed, on a smaller scale, in Parihaka in the 1870s and early 1880s. Parihaka had street lighting before Wellington, and was the envy of the settlers on adjoining lands. They looted the place when it was finally invaded by Crown forces.

Imperialism acted, and continues to act, as a break on Maori development, as I noted in an article on the history of Tuhoe attempts to develop their resources in the face of alternating periods of neglect and sabotage from the state.

If Maori had been able to continue to develop the economic model represented by the Waikato and Parihaka, then they would have had been able to modernise under their own terms, adopting what they wanted from the rest of the world without being subjected to the sort of assimilationism that was a feature of New Zealand state policy from the 1860s to the 1970s.

A lot of the pseudo-historians who claim that Celts or Chinese or little green men got here before Maori believe that remarkable aspects of Maori culture like carving and tattooing must have been taken over from earlier, superior civilisations. They can't see how Maori could possibly have produced such cultural treasures. Of course, their incredulity is based on an unacknowledged racism. In much the same way, Gadd's refusal to believe that Maori could possibly have handled the process of modernisation without conquest and assimilation smacks of uninterrogated prejudices.

If you want a glimpse of the relevance of the sort of debate I've been having with Gadd to the world of the twenty-first century, then take a look at this article on the fine Indian blog Kafila. The enclosures are far from over.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

(Anti) Imperialism