Friday, May 30, 2008

What was that you were saying about religious tolerance?

I don't think Richard Gere will be talking about the persecution of this group of Tibetan Buddhists and their fellow-thinkers.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A portrait of the artist as a lefty

James Joyce has never been a best-seller, but his books have never gone out of print, either. The old boy might get a modest spike in his sales figures over the next few weeks, thanks to a lengthy and admiring overview of his work on Lenin's Tomb, one of Britain's most popular left-wing blogs. The Tomb highlights Joyce's links to the progressive political causes of his day, and brushes aside the left-wing philistines who have complained that Ulysses and the other great works are 'too complicated' for ordinary dumb working class readers (personally, I've been amazed at how often the people who employ this line of argument against modern(ist) writing and art are themselves intellectuals, rather than the workers they claim to represent).

Whilst I find the details of Joyce's political opinions and writings interesting, they are not the main reason I would claim him as a man of the left. Like most writers, Joyce was always more interested in literature than politics, and it is in the form and themes of his literary writing that we must locate the essence of his worldview. I think that Joyce's great achievement was not to be a supporter of Irish independence and a few other progressive causes, but to be a modernist and a populist at the same time (and if you think that such a combination wasn't so difficult, try taking a look at the work of Joyce's peers TS Eliot and Wyndham Lewis, not to mention dozens of other modernists!). It is a pleasure, then, to see The Tomb dwelling on the implicitly political aspects of Joyce's creative writing.

Joyce's writing was highly innovative, and works like Ulysses remains initially challenging reads today, but this difficulty is leavened by Joyce's belief in the mystery and beauty of the everyday lives of ordinary human beings. Joyce despised the elitism of the bourgeois high culture of his day, with its assumption that nobody who made less than three hundred pounds a year ever had a thought or feeling worth recording. The stream of consciousness technique that Joyce made famous in his first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is the embodiment of his repudiation of highbrow snobbery: by entering directly into the heads of his characters, and showing everything that they think and feel, no matter how apparently trivial or tawdry, Joyce breaks through the barriers that held back a Victorian novelist of manners.

Joyce was much happier in a down-to-earth boozer than a literary salon, and most of the important characters in his writings are the type of people you'd be more likely to find in a boozer than a salon. Although he was an Irish nationalist Joyce disliked national chauvinism in all its forms, and his decision to make one of the main characters of Ulysses Jewish reflects his commitment to an outward-looking, inclusive model of Irish identity.

The Tomb's post on Joyce is followed by a long and rather bewildering comments thread, which culminates in a heated discussion of the merits of the music of Frank Zappa. Before that rather dismal endpoint has been reached, though, a couple of commenters mention The Intellectuals and the Masses, the wild and wildly controversial attack on some of the leading figures of the modernist movement which John Carey published a decade ago.

Carey argues convincingly that the likes of Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot were incurable snobs with ultra-reactionary politics, but he flounders badly when he tries to net Joyce with his simplistic generalisations about the modernist movement. Carey is forced to acknowledge Joyce's intense interest in the lives of ordinary people, but tries lamely to argue that this interest was born out of a desire to make it easier for a bureaucratic elite to dominate and manipulate the proles. As if Ulysses was the work of a dry bourgeois sociologist, like Durkheim or Talcott Parsons!

The best way to prove John Carey wrong, of course, is to pick up a copy of Ulysses and read (anywhere). If you're not in a reading mood, or you don't feel like anything too modernist, here's Syd Barrett putting Joyce's early poem 'Golden Hair' to music at Abbey Road one hazy day in the late '60s:

Friday, May 23, 2008

Killing b

I managed to escape from the maximum security institution known as Auckland University several months ago, but I still visit often enough to keep an eye on Craccum, the congenitally shambolic student magazine. The last issue I saw contained the usual mixture of unfunny pseudonymous letters to the editor, typo-ridden opinion pieces, promising but half-finished feature articles, and too-short book and movie reviews. Snuggled in the midst of all this was a short but profoundly depressing piece by Aroha Harawira, the Programme and Operations Manager for bFM, the university-based radio station.

Harawira is concerned about the quality of the unsolicited demos that bFM has been receiving from unsigned Auckland bands. There's nothing new about that sort of complaint, of course - this city's garages and garden sheds have always hidden their share of geniuses, but they also harboured plenty of bands that put more thought into their names than their songs, and prefer cranking up the volume to changing chords (check out these jokers, for examples of both sins).

What's depressing about Harawira's article is that it focuses not on the quality of the music being submitted to bFM, but on the packaging of that music. She complains about low-fi demos, and warns young bands to make sure their songs are 'mastered well' and 'tonally balanced'. She's got some sobering advice for that punk band in a Pakuranga garage, and the free noise outfit shaking the walls of a Helensville boat- shed:

Listen to a professionally mastered commercial recording from a similar genre and then pop your track on next. Ask yourself, 'will this stand up on the airwaves?' If not, then go back to the drawing board...

And it's not only the music that has to be gift-wrapped for Aroha - she warns young musos against sending their demo in with a 'scrappy note on refill for liner notes', and suggests that bands need a 'whiz on photoshop', as well as a slick producer.

I know what you're thinking. So what if Aroha wants a little professionalism from musicians? What's so hard about packaging your product nicely? Aren't I being petty, even by my standards, in criticising poor Aroha, who has at least taken the time to write to young musicians who might otherwise fail to get that big bFM break?

I want to reply to these objections by proposing a little thought experiment. Like many of my increasingly aged readership, I suspect, I grew up listening to a generation of great Kiwi bands on bFM, bands with great names as well as great songs, bands that made labels like Flying Nun, South Indies, and Xpressway cult favourites around the world. I challenge anyone who remembers hearing The Clean or Tall Dwarfs or The Builders or The Bird's Nest Roys or The 3D's or the first incarnation of the Headless Chickens for the first time on bFM to ask themselves whether the song they heard was 'tonally balanced' and 'well mastered'. Hell, was it mastered at all?

What about the physical qualities of the first releases by many great Kiwi bands? Would those covers and sleeves have met Aroha's lofty standards? I doubt it, remembering Chris Knox's frantically scrawled and almost illegible track listing on the back of the Tall Dwarfs' early EPs, or the prominent typo on the cover of one of the first albums by The 3D's.
In its 1980s and early '90s heyday bFM was a revelation. It turned a generation of young whippersnappers like myself off the middle of the road tosh of Top 40 radio and turned them on to a whole new universe of sound. Although it was perhaps best-known for promoting the guitar-based bands I've been namechecking, the station was gloriously ecelectic, playing everything from the industrial noise of Throbbing Gristle to the old school hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaata to the dodgy seventies psychedelia of Kiwi hippy Krishna outfit Space Farm. The station had a show for country music fans, which kicked off with a recommendation from George Bush senior, and a show which played nothing but field recordings made by ethnomusicologists in the mountains and jungles of the Third World. There was a rather sick comedy show for kids on Sunday mornings, and an awful heavy metal show.

The old bFM was famous for playing unsigned as well as famous bands. A couple of dodgy blokes from my high school, who spent most of their time either stealing cars or playing guitars, got organised to record a reggae version of that old South Auckland classic 'Stairway to Heaven' on antique four-track recording gear. When bFM deigned to play it on their Monday night Freak the Sheep show, which was dedicated to new Kiwi music, the budding rock stars became instant celebrities. (There were, of course, limits to bFM's generosity - when Glen and Matthew phoned the station and asked a DJ to play the song again, because 'some pretty hot chicks are listening expecting to hear it', they were politely declined, and their careers ground to a halt.)

I know, I know, I sound like a bitter old bugger living on the memories of his youth. bFM had to change, to grow, and today's corporate operation, with its carefully chosen playlists and lavish ads, brings in valuable cash for the student association, even if students don't seem much involved in actually managing the station. The trouble for me is that bFM still seems to try, now and then, to play on the image of its underground past, when to all intents and purposes it has left that past behind.

The station has plenty of cash, but it lures young DJs into unpaid internships with the promise of career advancement. The station justifies this superexploitation by pretending that is still some sort of shoestring, underground operation, but it can find the money to pay a handsome salary to that much-hated breakfast slob-jock Mikey Havoc.

Luckily, there are people around willing to rekindle the flame bFM seems to have quenched some time in the '90s. One of them is Andrew 'the love machine' Maitai, the proprietor of Powertool Records, who continues to pump out a bewildering and exhilerating variety of low-fi musical treats. One of the more venerable figures on Maitai's label is Bill Direen, frontman of '80s Flying Nun legends The Builders. Bill's 2007 Powertools album Human Kindness was hailed as a masterpiece by the Sunday Star-Times' Grant Smithies.

Bill has spent the last few months in his second home of Paris, but he's jetting back to these shores soon. To celebrate Bill's return, Powertools is planning to release his recordings of a suite of songs written by the equally legendary Alan Brunton for a play about Michael Joseph Savage. Bill hasn't stopped writing songs of his own, of course. Here's some footage of him performing something new, in his cosy Paris apartment:

Along with his jamming buddy Brett Cross, Bill has been preparing a music-themed issue of the long-running literary journal brief. The issue will come with a free CD which matches the voices of brief writers with the grooves of a wide variety of musos, most of whom seem to have found inspiration in spontaneity and extremely low-tech recording gear. Brett and Bill have put a few teasers on the Titus Books website, just in case you can't contain your curiousity. Aroha Harawira would not be impressed.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Remembering 1978...and 1943

Next Sunday is the thirtieth anniversary of the eviction of protesters from Bastion Point. It is not surprising that a range of events, from academic seminars to a public 'remembrance and reconciliation' ceremony to a photographic exhibition, have been organised to mark the date. The five hundred and seven day occupation of the headland the Ngati Whatua people call Takaparawha has come to symbolise the wave of Maori protests that swept through New Zealand in the 1970s and '80s. The size of the occupation, its location near the centre of the country's largest city, and the massive scale of the state action it prompted all helped to embed Bastion Point in the memories of a generation of Kiwis. The settlement of the dispute and the return of Takaparawha and other parcels of Ngati Whatua land at the end of the 1980s give the story the extra appeal of a happy ending.

But the battle to regain Takaparawha was only one aspect of a drawn-out conflict between Ngati Whatua and the Crown. Long before the famous occupation began, Ngati Whatua's energies were consumed by the struggle to retain a toehold in the city they had once dominated. In this struggle for survival, Ngati Whatua made many allies. One of their most important allies was the trade union movement. Although they had mostly Pakeha memberships, Auckland's trade unions played an active role in championing the Ngati Whatua cause and defending the iwi from attacks by the state.

The decline of class-based politics over the past twenty years and the diminished role of the unions and the Pakeha left in Maori protest movements have both contributed to a forgetfulness about the role that workers' organisations played in Ngati Whatua's struggle to hold on to its land. The history of the alliance between Ngati Whatua and the workers' movement should not be forgotten, though, because it shows that, contrary to the rhetoric of right-wing politicians and redneck talkback radio hosts, Maori campaigns for land and justice can attract the active support of ordinary Pakeha. By the 1940s Ngati Whatua possessed only thirteen of the two hundred and eighty hectares which tribal elders had set aside for future generations when Auckland was being established in the middle of the nineteenth century. There were three hectares of low-lying land at Okahu Bay, and another ten hectares on the hills behind the bay. The land on Bastion Point had been alienated for sixty years, on the grounds that it was needed by the state for military purposes.

A village named Orakei had been maintained at Okahu Bay, in the shadow of Bastion Point, as a focal point for Ngati Whatua, but a lack of electricity, the low-lying nature of the land, and the effects of a nearby sewage line meant that the site was often a quagmire. By 1943, both local and central government were threatening to clear the settlement at Okahu Bay by force, and relocate the Ngati Whatua people in state housing. Preoccupied by the war raging in Eurpe and Pacific, few Kiwis seemed aware of the plight of the tangata whenua of Auckland.

After Ngati Whatua appealed for her help, Princess Te Puea of the Tainui people became involved in efforts to protect the people of Orakei. Te Puea had a history of collaboration with the Pakeha left and the labour movement, and she used her contacts with the trade unions to build support for Ngati Whatua. In April 1943 she paid a visit to Okahu Bay, and in the first week of June 1943 she and several Auckland trade union leaders, including the poet and Communist RAK Mason, organised a massive work bee at the bay. Led by Mason, two hundred mostly Pakeha members of the Labourers Union laid a three hundred foot long palisade of manuka stakes and totara posts in deep concrete around the Ngati Whatua village. The Auckland Trades Council gave Ngati Whatua three hundred pounds worth of building materials, so that improvements could be made to their village and to the marae that formed its centrepiece. The Council also announced that any worker who helped either to clear the site or build there for a non-Maori authority would be blacklisted, so that he could not work anywhere else in Auckland. In his biography of Te Puea, Michael King described the response to the work bee:

Orakei inhabitants shed tears when Wally Ashton, secretary of the Trades Council, presented them with a visitors' book for the marae. Te Puea, for her part, thanked all the Pakeha workers. 'For what you have done for our people who needed it most, I do not know how to say often enough, 'God bless you', she said.

By 1943, Peter Fraser's Labour government had given itself sweeping powers to curtail trade union activity and political protest if such activity was deemed to be damaging New Zealand's war effort. Fraser had used his powers to ban The People's Voice, the newspaper of the Communist Party, for opposing the early stages of the war. Even in 1943, when the party had reversed its position, Fraser was deeply suspicious of Communist Party members like RAK Mason. Fraser had no sympathy for the desire of Ngati Whatua to preserve their village at Okahu Bay. He could not understand why iwi members would prefer the unheated and unhygenic housing of the village to the comfortable state-owned homes that had been built in nearby suburbs and offered to Ngati Whatua. Fraser's dour, economistic worldview could not accomodate the Maori concept of mana whenua, which assigns a special, unquantifiable value to an ancestral home. Nor could Fraser understand that the collectivism of traditional Maori society, with its extended families living together and communal organisation of labour, would be badly damaged by the settlement of nuclearised families in scattered state houses.

Fraser was very angry at the work bee, and threatened to arrest Te Puea and her trade union allies. Te Puea herself later revealed that she wore two pairs of underwear on the day of the bee, because she feared she might be spending her next night in a cold prison cell. Many trade unionists stayed overnight at Okahu Bay after the day's work, because they feared that the police or the army would attack, tear down the palisade they had built, and destroy the village. In the end, the government backed down and the people of Okahu Bay were left undisturbed.

In 1951, though, the National government of Sid Holland gave the green light for the destruction of the Ngati Whatua settlement, and police and bulldozers moved in. The kainga and marae at Okahu Bay were knocked down and torched, the land they had stood on was seized by the state, and Ngati Whatua were forced into state houses they could never own (iwi members could not resettle on the hills that overlooked the bay, because the ten hectares they had owned there had been seized under the Public Works Act in 1950).

It is significant that the destruction of the kainga at Okahu Bay took place in the same year that the Holland government used the famous one hundred and fifty-one day lockout of waterfront workers to crush the militant wing of New Zealand's trade union movement. It is likely that the state only felt free to move against the Maori of Okahu Bay after it had sapped the strength of their allies in the trade unions.One of the weeping children who watched their homes and marae burning to the ground in 1951 was named Joe Hawke. Twenty-six years later, Hawke would lead the occupation of Bastion Point to highlight Ngati Whatua demands for the return of all the land stolen from them. The epic occupation was supported by many Auckland trade unions and left-wing political groups.

On May the 25th 1978 the National government of Robert Muldoon used seven hundred police, soldiers, and naval personnel to destroy the village that the occupiers had built on Bastion Point. Hundreds of protesters were arrested. As soon as they heard about Muldoon's attack, trade unionists across Auckland walked off their jobs in a 'wildcat' (spontaneous) strike. Following in the tradition of 1943, the unions declared a 'green ban' which barred their members from doing any work for developers on Takaparawha. It was thanks partly to this union ban that the site remained undeveloped in the years after 1978. The collaboration between organised labour and Ngati Whatua is an important part of the story of the successful struggle to return Bastion Point and Okahu Bay to their rightful owners. Today Maori are still trying to win back a lot of stolen land, and ordinary Kiwis of all races are increasingly concerned by the buy-up of coastal land by wealthy individuals and multinational companies. The multi-racial, union-backed fight against the theft of the lands of Ngati Whatua is an example to us all.

Michael King, Te Puea: a biography, Hodder and Staughton, 1977, pg 219; Rachel Barrowman, Mason: the life of RAK Mason, Victoria University Press, 2003; Ranginui Walker, Struggle Without End, Penguin, 1990, pgs 215-219.]

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Rough Guide to Anti-travel

Last Thursday I gave a guest lecture up at the Albany campus of Massey University. I'd been invited north by Jack Ross, who had included my blog post 'From Kalmykia to Huntly' in the coursebook of a paper he teaches on travel writing. My post had discussed 'anti-travel' writing, which I had assumed to be a thriving literary sub-genre. Jack and several other friends have started using the term, and Titus Books has shown some interest in an anthology of Kiwi 'anti-travel' writing. When I googled 'anti-travel' on the morning of my talk, though, I found myself being directed again and again to my own blog for information. It looks as though we might to have to kick this one off ourselves, folks.

I talked for about three quarters of an hour and then had a freewheeling discussion with Jack's students, who impressed me with their enthusiasm for literature and life. I hope that some of them will end up contributing to that Titus Anthology of Anti-Travel Writing. Here's the text of my talk, which Jack and the rest of my audience treated with admirable tolerance.

Ripping off the Brands: a Rough Guide to Anti-travel

When I had lunch with my mother the other day I told her that I was planning to give a guest lecture up at Albany on travel writing. ‘What will you talk about?’ she asked me earnestly. ‘You never go anywhere.’ She was only exaggerating slightly. When it comes to travel, I’m something of a failure, especially in relation to the rest of my family. My father, in particular, has visited an extraordinary number of countries on every continent except Antarctica. When I was a kid he would disappear for a few weeks a year and reappear with a stuffed piranha from the Amazon or a cheesy T shirt from Hong Kong. At the moment he’s planning trips to Estonia and Latvia, which are about the only countries in Europe he hasn’t visited. I imagine he has a list of all the nations of the world, and that he’s slowly ticking names off, like a very thorough shopper ticking off products at the supermarket.

My travel exploits are rather pathetic, by comparison. Apart from visits to Australia, which don’t really count, and numerous jaunts around New Zealand, which certainly don’t count as travel, in the eyes of most Kiwis, the only place I’ve been is Britain, and I spent most of my time in that country in Hull, which was awarded first prize in a competition to find ‘Britain’s Crappest Town’ in 2005. Even worse, I suppose, I spent most of my time in Hull in a small room amidst the university library’s archive of unpublished manuscripts, scanning yellowing letters by dead British Marxists and manifestoes of long-defunct political movements. PhD research isn’t all that romantic, even when it takes you abroad.

I suppose, then, that I am making a virtue out of necessity when I talk about being an exponent of ‘anti-travel’. It’s certainly true that when I placed an account of that epic journey to Hull in my first book I used the term ‘anti-travel writing’ to placate my slightly bemused publishers. I’d be hard-pressed to pass myself off as Bruce Chatwin, or even Paul Theroux.

The poetry of the everyday

But I want to argue that the phrase ‘anti-travel writing’ describes a distinct literary sub-genre, not just my own sense of inadequacy. I think this sub-genre has its roots in the modernist movement which transformed literature and the rest of the arts in the first decades of the twentieth century. Modernism was so-named because it was a response to modernity – to the industrial capitalism spreading through the world from Western Europe, to the speed of modern communications, and to the international crises that found expression in the beginning of the first global war in 1914. Whether they were painting Cubist canvases or experimenting with atonal music or writing stream of consciousness novels, the modernists were trying to find forms appropriate to the new world around them.
Modernists were of course divided in their emotional responses to this new world. Some, like TS Eliot, hated it, and pined for an older, pre-industrial society. Others celebrated modernity. The Italian Futurists, for instance, developed an almost religious attitude toward technology. The famous Futurist Manifesto of 1909 insisted that ‘a speeding motorcycle is more beautiful than the Mona Lisa’, and Futurist poems and paintings celebrated the feats of aeroplanes and trains, as well as the first generation of bikies.

In a less hysterical way, English-language modernist writers like James Joyce and William Carlos Williams celebrated the lives of the ordinary inhabitants of the teeming cities industrial civilisation had created. Joyce’s great novel Ulysses is a sort of extended prose poem celebrating the slightly seedy lives of a small group of inhabitants of ‘dear dirty Dublin’. Joyce wrote his novel in exile, in glamorous parts of Continental Europe, yet his mind was fixed on the minor details of a thoroughly unremarkable part of an unglamorous provincial city. Joyce searched for transcendent moments in the ordinary details of his characters’ lives, moments which he called epiphanies. The Romantics had located enlightenment on the tops of lonely mountains or on the shores of wild seas, but Joyce found it in smelly kitchens and smoky pubs.

I think a belief in the almost magical character that the everyday, the overlooked and the ugly can have, if they are only perceived properly, is a feature of much of the best modernist writing and art. In his introduction to a collection of poems by Andre Breton, the guru of the Surrealist movement, Bill Zavatsky wrote that:

The grand statement of Surrealism was that right here, right now, in this world, perhaps with a walk down the street and a chance look in the window of the local drugstore, you could find an entryway to the other world…the lost paradise…you yourself could create it.

And yet, as I’ve noted, modernism was also marked by a suspicion of the new world of modernity. Industrial capitalism was often seen as Janus-faced – on the one hand, it could create vast amounts of wealth, new types of culture, new amusements, and new supplies of leisure, but on the other hand it involved enclosed commons, poisoned rivers, child labourers, and black lung. Karl Marx, who was perhaps the prototypical modernist, praised capitalism for dragging peoples around world out of the ‘backwardness and idiocy of rural life’, but also noted that ‘capital comes into this world oozing blood and sweat from every pore’.

And in the first decade of the twenty-first century, when terms like peak oil and global warming are part of our vocabulary, it surely takes an effort of the imagination to understand the uncritical worship of industrial capitalism that is such a feature of The Futurist Manifesto. Today, in the era of globalisation, modernity no longer exists in enclaves, the way it did in Joyce’s era.

Other things have changed. In the decades since World War Two, especially, the coal mine and the steel mill have ceased to be the supreme symbols of modernity in the West. The growth of the so-called ‘consumer society’ and the service sector of the economy have changed the way many people in the West live and work. Travel has changed. Even in Joyce’s day, the ordinary inhabitants of a place like Dublin seldom had the chance to travel abroad, unless they were young men needed to die in a foreign war. Today, international tourism is routine. Majorca and Amsterdam are just a cheap airfare away.

Tourism is about the consumption of place. Like every other form of consumption, it is dependent upon brands. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, we live in the golden age of branding, and Majorca and Amsterdam and Hawaii and New Zealand are brands, as much as Levis or Calvin Klein.

Tourism today may be widespread, but it is subject to certain constraints. We may be able fly to a distant location for a holiday, but we are often able to spend only a brief period – a few days or a couple of weeks – there, before returning to dreary jobs and mechanical day to day routines. Travel has become the ‘other’ of work. Because we are often so busy at work, we choose to be indolent on holiday – to switch off cell phones and brains and lie on a beach. If we are obsequious at work, trying to impress or placate workmates or customers, then we can be selfish and demanding on holiday. Our interactions with the people and places we are visiting is often carefully mediated and commercialised. The inhabitants of the places we are visit are more likely to be pouring us drinks than sitting talking to us over a drink. Life on a typical package holiday is as unbalanced, in its own way, as life in a modern workplace often is.

Lost in Middle Earth

And it is not only tourists who can consume place-brands, and mistake those brands for reality. The people who live in the places that have been branded often show a tendency to empathise with the local brand, even when it seems absurdly irrelevant to their lives and concerns.

Tourism is now New Zealand’s most lucrative economic pursuit outside of agriculture. As the power stations and timber mills closed and hundreds of kilometers of railway track were torn up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, concerted efforts were made to rebrand the country as a clean, green paradise. An older image of a rough but cheerful God’s Own Country full of cow cockies, sheep shearers, and gigantic rugby forwards was allowed to fade.

And it’s extraordinary how quickly the image of New Zealand as a pre-industrial, almost unpopulated natural paradise has been internalised. A friend of mine, a twenty-something Kiwi, was flying home recently after a long OE on the other side of the world. When his Air New Zealand jet got about halfway across the Pacific the cabin crew began to show promo clips designed for inward-bound tourists – shots of huge snowy mountains that looked like piles of delicious ice cream, mountain rivers that resembled torrents of champagne, and deserted jewel-like alpine lakes. My friend, who has grown up in South Auckland and has never been further south than Taupo, burst into nostalgic tears. It’s easy to understand why my friend was emotional about returning to New Zealand, or rather Auckland, after years away. He was looking forward, after all, to reunions with family and friends. What’s remarkable is the way that images of a completely alien South Island high country landscape were able to trigger his tears of homesickness.

A long-dead English Don has played a key role in the rebranding of New Zealand. The success of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels has been hailed by New Zealand’s government, and eagerly exploited by the tourism industry. Today locations from the Rings movies are noted on some new road maps, and visitors can choose from a range of guidebooks that mix photos of the locations with images from Jackson’s films. New Zealand has become Middle Earth, for a lot of overseas fans of the Rings. But in order to make this country more hospitable for Tolkien’s hobbits and orcs, Jackson carefully airbrushed our hills, plains, and marshes, removing signs of signs of real history, and in particular human history, from those places. The earthworks of Maori pa were unwrinkled into smooth green hillsides, and the ruins of shearers’ sheds were lifted cleanly off the South Island’s hinterland. As some of you no doubt realise by now, I am not a big fan of the Lord of the Rings. I agree with Michael Moorcock, who argues in his book Wizardry and Wild Romance that Tolkien's writing was driven by an obsessive fear that the south of England, aka the Shire, with its idealised countryside and countryfolk, was about to be over-run by rough northern blokes (orcs) led by nasty Bolshy intellectuals (evil wizards) and supported by ungrateful natives in other parts of the Empire.
The sad thing is that in the space of a few decades the writing of an embittered old Oxford Don - writing which could originally only be published by a crank religious outfit - has become a myth that so many people around the world have assimilated.
Thanks to Rings and the New Zealand tourism industry, New Zealand is seen by many millions of people as a sort of fantasyland, a refuge removed from the twenty-first century. If New Zealanders have a place at all in this myth, then it is as friendly, obsequious hobbits, happily isolated in their Shire at the bottom of the world, the custodians of a theme park wilderness. The real New Zealand and its people are both more complicated and more interesting.

Let’s consider, for a moment, the case of Hobbiton, which is one of the jewels in the crown of Waikato tour operators. The town of Matamata, at the southern edge of the Hauraki Plains, proudly advertises itself as the ‘Home of Hobbiton’, because Peter Jackson located the Shire of Middle Earth in the countryside nearby. In Rings, Tolkien makes the Shire a symbol of a healthy, natural rural community, free of the vices of sophistication and cosmopolitanism, whose inhabitants were organically connected to the land. The Matamata Visitor Information Centre tries to promote the same image today, and the website, which advertises tours to Rings sites, claims that the Waikato region ‘perfectly portrays’ the ‘peaceful shire’, and boasts that the natural ‘rural landscape of ordered farms and hedgerows’ which can be found round Matamata is ‘a delight’.
The truth is that Hauraki is one of the most unnatural places in the world. It was conquered one hundred and forty-five years ago, when a British army invaded the independent Maori Kingdom of the Waikato. It is not that the Hauraki Plains were different, under Maori control – the Hauraki Plains did not even exist, in the era of Maori control.

Until the second decade of the twentieth century, the ‘Plains’ were a swamp covered by an enormous forest of kahikatea, or white pine. In winter, the whole area was waterlogged, except for a few small fortified islands like Matamata. Despite this regular inundation, the Hauraki was heavily populated by subtribes of the great Tainui iwi. The people of the Hauraki were highly skilled at fishing, birding, and catching the eels that swarmed in their millions in the great swamp. From the 1850s they also grew flax and wheat on the margins of the swamp, built mills, and operated schooners which traded with the foreign city of Auckland. The people of the Hauraki were so familiar, so comfortable with the water that surrounded them that they produced carvings, unique in all of Aotearoa, which portrayed figures – ancestors, and Gods – with webbed fingers and webbed toes.

After the Waikato War the people of the Hauraki saw their territory confiscated and utterly transformed. Settlers dynamited the lazy rivers that wound through the great swamp, in an effort to destroy the elaborate eel and lamprey traps and weirs that were a danger to British shipping. Forests were levelled on the flatland and the hills that fringed it, and the swamp was drained like a wound. The colonists planted hedgerows and oaks, in an effort to ‘Christianise the landscape’, and gave their settlements sturdy English names like Orchard and Morrinsville. The only indigenous species that existed on the brand-new Hauraki Plains was the eel, which wriggled like a question mark in ditches on the margins of the landscape.
The so-called peaceful shire of tour operators is thus the product of furious and often violent activity. And a certain kind of anxiety, a certain very profound angst, has underlain this furious activity. I work part-time at the Auckland Museum, and I remember the farmer who had driven up from the Hauraki Plains with an artefact – a small green adze, which ached in his sweating hand – that he hoped we would acquire. When we told him the item would have to be referred to a curator, and that no speedy decision could be made, he became almost hysterical. ‘My father unearthed this thing’ he stammered, ‘and my father died terribly. I don’t want that to happen to me’. His was not the voice of the contented peasantry of an idyllic Waikato Shire. His was the voice of an insecure tenant on an alien territory. For him, digging up the past was a terrifying business.

Ripping off the brands

For me, anti-travel writing is about rejecting falsified images of New Zealand, and falsified images of other parts of the world. It’s about digging into the present to find the past which can help explain that present. It’s about ripping brands off the landscape.

I have to confess, at this point, that my take on anti-travel writing is influenced by my political prejudices. I’m a sadly unreconstructed socialist, and I identify with individuals and movements resisting capitalist globalisation – individuals and movements that don’t, in other words, think that human progress has to mean corporate ownership of the economy, free trade deals with the US, a McDonalds on every block, and Paris Hilton on every magazine cover.

I admire the Bolivarian revolution which has swept Venezuela in recent years, and I notice that an important part of that revolution has involved the redefinition of a national image that had been fashioned to suit interests and prejudices that most Venezuelans do not share. Instead of presenting Venezuela to tourists as a few idyllic beaches and a couple of spectacular waterfalls, travel agents are now promoting ‘revolutionary tourism’, which takes visitors into the barrios of the big cities and out to the cooperative farms of the countryside, so that they can hang out with real Venezuelans and get to know the country’s cultures.

Venezuela has been famous for producing beauty queens, many of whom go on to be television news presenters, high-profile journalists, and even politicians. But the vast majority of the people are not young, wealthy, ultra-slim and white like the beauty queens. When he announced the creation of a new state-run television station, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez proclaimed that at least some of its reporters and presenters would be overweight, aged and ugly, so as to accurately reflect the real composition of the Venezuelan population. (Maybe Richard Long should go and work there?) I think that rejecting the brands that are put on places and populations has to go hand in hand with rejecting the economic system behind the brand.

A couple of names for the canon

But enough of the sermonising. Which names can we inscribe in the canon of anti-travel writing? I talked of a debt to modernism, but that movement peaked eighty years ago. Who is doing anti-travel writing now? I wanted to mention Iain Sinclair, a Londoner and friend of the great JG Ballard. For many years now, Sinclair has been busy turning walking into a literary genre. His wanderings through some of the less glamorous parts of London and England have given him the material for a series of thick and poetic books. The thickest, and perhaps the most poetic as well, is called London Orbital, and records a long, arduous and often very funny walk alongside the M 25, the motorway which encircles or – depending on your viewpoint – besieges London. Along the way he encounters crazed hippies, secret military installations, industrial wastelands, forgotten, overgrown cemeteries, and speed freaks who hoon around the M 25 twenty-five times in souped-up Bedford vans for kicks. London Orbital is a sort of kaleidoscopic portrait of end-of-the-millennium Britain.
Another bloke I’d nominate for the anti-travel canon is Martin Edmond, a Kiwi currently exiled in Sydney. Where Sinclair is an obsessive walker, Edmond likes to get around by car – he makes his living as a taxi driver, and he keeps a blog based on his experiences on the night shift. Edmond’s books mix travel, memories of almost hallucinatory power, and summaries of his own vast reading. They are simultaneously autobiographies and potted histories of the entire world. Edmond loves disappearing into the outback, or into remote parts of the Pacific, but he’s just as at home describing visits to less exotic locations like his old high school in Ohakune or some of the seedier secondhand bookshops of Sydney.

A five-step guide

At the risk of sounding like a self-help writer, I want to bust the anti-travel process down into five easy steps. The first step, of course, is to put yourself in the field. This does not have to involve making an epic journey; it does not have to involve making any sort of journey. It might involve nothing more than taking a chance look in the window of a chemist. Anti-travel writing is about exploring a certain state of mind, as much as a place.

Once you have found some sort of location, however near or far away, you need to take the second step of developing an original response to that location. You need to break with superficial, clichéd pictures of the place where you find yourself – to tear the brands off, in other words. One way of doing this sort of thing, for some writers, has been to use, or rather abuse, drugs and alcohol – one thinks of Rimbaud’s attempts to ‘derange’ his senses with hashish and absinthe to achieve a visionary perspective on nineteenth century France, or Hunter S Thompson dropping acid in Vegas.

Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from using booze or drugs, but I do think that the methodology of Rimbaud and his successors has certain limitations. Drugs and alcohol don’t actually add anything to your mind – they just rearrange what is already there. If there isn’t anything much for them to work with, they tend to produce pretty uninspiring results. It’s remarkable how tedious most of the stoners I know become, as soon as they start talking about their last acid trip. Invariably, their visionary experiences remind me of some B-grade movie from 1969 with the Monkees on the soundtrack.

I know I’m going to sound like a geek, but I want to suggest that a little good old fashioned scholarship can trump acid in the inspiration stakes. The third part of the anti-travel writing process should involve research, a word which doesn’t have to have dusty, academic connotations. You could do your research talking to someone in a pub, or painstakingly tanscribing the graffiti on a toilet wall, or randomly opening a massive local history which nobody outside the district you’re studying has bothered to read. You don’t necessarily need a synoptic, God’s eye view of the place you’re studying – a view through a keyhole can be just as good, as long as you look hard enough. What is important is that you find some new angle on your subject, some sort of working hypothesis for your investigation.

The fourth stage in the process involves reaching some sort of conclusion about the place you’re investigating. You should be prepared to change your mind, in the course of your investigation, if the material you uncover contradicts your prejudices. But you shouldn’t worry too much about justice. All viewpoints are partial. You’re not a judge, asked to weigh carefully various pieces of evidence and reach a balanced verdict. There’s a reason why judges always look so bored when the TV news runs footage of court proceedings. It’s more fun to be a prosecutor or defendant, and argue passionately for a partial, and probably prejudiced viewpoint.

The fifth and final part of the process is, of course, the write-up. I’m sure the good Dr Jack Ross has told you that inspiration is never an excuse for sloppy grammar or redundancies or a surfeit of adjectives. He’s correct, of course, but I think that, once you’ve achieved a certain level of technical proficiency, you should always try to write fast. Writing should never be an open-ended process, because writers are supremely talented at finding excuses not to finish texts. Set your own deadlines. Travel writing, which relies upon the communication of initial impressions, should be done particularly quickly. If you’re excited, your writing has more chance of exciting.

Having said that, I’m a bit embarrassed about ‘From Kalmykia to Huntly’, the piece of my writing that Jack has included in your coursebook, because it was never meant as anything more than a ten minute blog post to go with some rather murky photos that my mate Brett Cross took during a trip we made down country. I would at least have checked my spelling if I had known Jack was going to use the piece.

I talked earlier about the right of Venezuelans to be ugly. In the piece which Jack put in your coursebook, and in a lot of other things I write, I’m arguing for the right of New Zealand to be ugly, or at least complicated, rather than the theme park paradise which the Tolkien films and the tourist industry seem to want to create. I’m fascinated by the Huntly district, and by the Waikato area in general, because of the very particular, very legible marks that history has made on the landscape there. Instead of airbrushing the landscape, and removing the history written on it, I want to read the messages in the coal shaft openings and canals and terraces and gravel quarries.

Underneath the streets of Huntly, and underneath the Waikato River that divides the town, lie a tangle of half-collapsed tunnels built a century ago by coal miners armed with shovels and dynamite. Every time I walk down the main street of Huntly I tread lightly, because I know I’m treading on hollow ground. Like the drained swamps and ghostly forests of the Hauraki Plains, these half-forgotten passageways are metaphors for a history which has often been repressed.
If you visit the coal mining museum in Huntly you may learn the names of the members of the miners’ wives lawn bowls team in 1951, or see a photo of the manager of Ralph’s Mine in 1911, but you will not be informed about the explosion that killed nearly fifty men at Ralph’s in 1914. You will not be told about the great strike of 1913, when drunken farmers on horseback, named Massey’s Cossacks, after the right-wing Prime Minister of the day, fought pitched battles with miners. You will not learn about the strange ‘riot’ of 1932, when the whole town of Huntly formed an orderly queue in front of the General Store, a group of housewives smashed the store’s windows with their handbags, and family after family calmly helped itself to the food its members could not afford to buy.

The fact that some of the uglier – or, perhaps we should say, more complicated – aspects of Huntly history have been kept out of the local museum may have something to do with the fact that a big mining company is funding the upgrade and relocation of that museum. But if you drive through the broken-backed countryside to the west of Huntly, on the wrong side of the river, then you’ll find the signs, the more or less cryptic messages left by history, like decaying mine entrances, blackened and condemned by explosions and fires, or derelict miners’ cottages the size of sheds, huddled in the shadow of the fine houses of the managers, or heaps of slack coal bleeding blackly into streams blocked by dynamited bridges. The past is a landscape waiting to be read.

I wanted to make the point that anti-travel writing doesn’t have to be packaged in prose – poetry can suit the sub-genre equally well. The account of the journey to Hull and back that I included in my first book mixed up prose and poetry. I thought I’d close by reading a piece called ‘Huntly’ which I wrote a few months ago, and which will probably make its way into my next book of poems, assuming of course that I can find somebody to publish another book of my poems! This poem is narrated by a worker in the cafeteria which forms part of the Visitors Centre at the Huntly Power Station:


Here at the coal station cafe
a Swedish couple consults
the local history, the book
nobody local would buy.
They turn the pages quickly,
turn the dogeared years,
the past we accumulated
steadily, resentfully,
like slack coal
or the grudges of the old,
until I bring a pot of tea
and a pair of mousetraps,
and the overland conveyor belt grinds
into gear, dumps another half-tonne
on the station's back door
while Japanese cameras flash.

The coal looks like kumara,
like the harvest they left to rot,
on a storehouse floor, in '32,
the year of the food riot,
the year nobody could buy.
Check the photo. It's in chapter four.

The seams, the reefs,
the bars on the river
take their own revenge.
Every explosion, every fire
every pisshead drowning
arose from an offence:
something pigshit stupid
or cheeky clever,
like Hika Wheeler wheezing
on a ciggy
under the river,
too close, this time, to
loose gelignite,
or the company plugging a shaft
with plaster, instead of cement,
or Trev Herdman sniffing up
his brother's missus
in the Delta Tavern,
the day before he dived.

Don't believe those
smartarse guides
at the mining museum,
on the other side.
They'll shit you
about 'an indefinite
future', as though
this station will never blow
its last breath, never become
the latest croaked smoker
to be carted away.
At six o'clock I mop up,
tip the bins,
turn the dark on,
watch colour-coded traffic
flow across the bridge,
listen to the rain
changing gear,
and the river grinding by
like conveyor belt coal.

Workers and other taonga

Auckland Museum has been much in the news over the past week. On Tuesday the New Zealand Herald told its readers that the museum had won a poll to determine Aucklanders' favourite building; on Thursday the same paper broke the story of Director Vanda Vitali's plan to disestablish a large number of positions at the museum, throwing the future of scores of workers into doubt and angering some of the iwi who entrust their taonga to the big building in the Domain. Vitali's plans are being opposed by the Public Service Association, which is the union charged with representing sites like the museum.

I've worked part-time at the museum since last July, and I'm a member of the PSA's museum branch committee. For both these reasons, I can't comment individually on many aspects of recent events at the institution. The beauty of unions is that they allow workers to act and speak collectively, and I think that the PSA statement on the situation at the museum does a good job of expressing the opinions of a very large number of museum staff, myself included.

I think that it was more than achitectural qualities that won the museum top place in the recent poll on Aucklanders' favourite buildings. Through its collection of taonga from Aotearoa and the Pacific and its role as a living memorial to Kiwis who died fighting abroad, the museum has a place in the hearts of a huge number of Aucklanders. The museum's workforce is as important to its identity as its architecture and its artefacts. With their vast experience, their skills in liasing with the public and groups like iwi and veterans' associations, their knowledge of New Zealand's history and its cultures, their ability to explain complex ideas and recondite objects in accessible, useful ways, and their concern for the integrity of the institution they serve, the staff of Auckland War Memorial Museum are a living treasure. Over the past ten months I have been repeatedly amazed by the depth and breadth of the human resources at the institution. I believe that the many expressions of support the museum workers have received over the past few days show that the public of Auckland recognise and appreciate the work they do.

The only way to guarantee the security of museum staff is to build a strong union branch on the site, so that we have the power to defend our interests. We need to follow the example of many similar sites - Auckland public library, and the Auckland zoo, for instances - and win a collective agreement. We'll be working to further strengthen our position over the coming few weeks and months, while keeping in close contact with all the members of the general public, iwi, and other unions that have offered their support over the past few days.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Best Children's Books

Frances Hodgson, The Secret Garden
Loved this book. The main character Mary was born in India and then moved to Yorkshire after the death of her parents (maybe I felt some extra connection with the story as my own mother was born in India and then grew up in Yorkshire). I remember my Yorkshire grandmother reading it to me and rereading myself a few times. The Secret Garden seemed to be full of magic.

Roald Dahl, Danny, the Champion of the World

Padraic Colum, The King of Ireland's Son
The Story of King Arthur and Other Celtic Heroes
The Children of Odin: The Book of Northern Myths

Brothers Grim, The Complete Grimm's Fairy Tales

Astrid Lindgren, Ronia, the Robber's Daughter

Cynthia Voigt,
Tillerman Cycle

Louisa May Alcott, Little Women (Series)

Laura Ingalls Wilder,
Little House on the Prairie

L. M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin

JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit
Enjoyed it as a kid though am a bit over it (ditto with the Narnia books).

Anne Holm, I am David

Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe

Phillipa Pearce, Tom's Midnight Garden

E. Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers

CS Lewis, The Chronicle of Narnia

Alan Wagstaff, Trinanoch
A life-changing journey begins when twins, Katherine and Thomas Rayner, fall through coloured light pouring from a church window into a different reality - Trinanoch. They have been called by the dwarfish q'Boldi and soon learn that a powerful enemy has set his sights on ruling the everyday world of the twins. Though they must help to thwart the enemy's plans, no one can explain what they must do or how to begin. And, in the end, what if the enemy seems to have the power to save their world? Did they choose the right side?
(OK, this is by my Dad and I have fond memories of him reading it to us when we were kids)

Madeline L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Tamora Pierce, The Song of the Lioness
Don't know if this book holds up but I enjoyed reading a book with a strong female heroin when I was about 12.

Isabel Wyatt, The Seven-Year-Old Wonder Book
I always remember the main character Sylvia. It felt special as seven year old to have a book specifically for me - not sure if it would hold up though (need to read it again - it's been a few years!).

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My top twenty

Jack Ross has listed his twenty favourite novels of the twentieth century (in fact, he's such a well-read bloke that he's made two lists) and invited others to lay down their hands. Here goes, then!

I make no apologies for including several collections of short stories in my randomly ordered top twenty. The novels I like are mostly short and episodic, anyway. I run out of patience easily. For me, a snack of Borges or Bowles or Ballard (whom I'm rereading with enormous enjoyment at the moment) is worth the three course meals of a Tolstoy or Joyce. If you disagree, hit me with your own list...

Jean-Paul Sartre, Iron in the Soul

Why wasn't this epic of French resistance and indifference to Nazi occupation ever made into a Hollywood blockbuster? Because Sartre's main character was an ascetic communist, or because the novel's brusque cuts from one scene and character to another would be anathema to plodding Hollywood directors? Iron in the Soul is that near-impossible thing - a philosophical action-thriller.

BS Johnson, The Unfortunates

BS Johnson was that rare beast amongst novelists - a social realist with an avant-garde technique. This 'book' was actually a box filled with loose pages which could be arranged in any order the reader chose. Stuffy British librarians were outraged, and tried to glue the pages to the inside of the box. The form of Johnson's novel may be unusual, but it is perfectly suited to his story. The protagonist of The Unfortunates is a jaded football reporter who visits Nottingham to record a dull game between two second-rate sides, and finds himself deluged by memories of an old friend from the city who died at a young age from cancer. The fractured, epiphanic form and Johnson's lilting stream of consciousness prose make The Unfortunates a strangely beautiful novel.

Graham Billing, The Slipway

Graham Billing was one of New Zealand's most gifted novelists, but he was also a legendary drunk, and this two hundred page prose poem is an incomparable record of the highs and lows of alcoholism.

Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta

Hemingway before his prose got paunchy. A bunch of American exiles exchange decadent Paris for the pagan energy of Spain in bullfighting season. 'I admired the way Hemingway made drunk people talk', Evelyn Waugh said.

Alun Lewis, In The Green Tree

A collection of stories and letters charting Lewis' passage through wartime India to Burma, where he blew his brains out at the edge of a latrine. Lewis was the most under-rated writer of the 20th century (I know that sounds very bold, but I couldn't really say the second or third most under-rated, could I?)

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Vonnegut 'stylises his acquiescence' to capitalist culture, Ron Silliman claimed back in the '80s. Phooey.

Brian Aldiss, Manuscript Found in a Police State

Alright, it's more of a long short story than a novella, but I'm putting it on my list because of Aldiss' unique ability to write science fiction and medieval fantasy at the same time.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four

Yes, I know, it's an unfinished and badly flawed book, but that just makes it more fascinating, if you're the kind of person who's as interested in a painter's studio as the works on the gallery wall. Whole academic careers have been made untangling the diverse influences on show here. Is Goldstein Trotsky? Was Orwell satirising America and postwar Britain, as well as the USSR? Does the poorly-formed and thus especially revealing character of Julia prove his essential misogyny? Over to you...

Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

A young man wanders aimlessly round postwar London, getting into a series of scrapes and reflecting, in a stoic English way, on the meaning or meaninglessness of life. Under the Net is like a cross between a Spanish picaresque novel, Sartre's Nausea, and a slightly stuffy English comedy.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Forget about the film, which favoured plot over the novel's numerous digressions into anecdote and theology. Apart from an intellectual feast, The Name of the Rose was a parable about the dangers of superstition and fanaticism. Eco was writing against the Cold War, but his book is just as relevant to the Bush era.

Don de Lillo, The Names

Hammer-wielding members of a mysterious cult dedicated to unifying the word and the world commit a series of ritual murders in the Mediterranean, the Near East, and India. A self-loathing American businessman investigates, and discovers the complicated linguistic formulae behind each killing. The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but when you can write sentences as evocative as de Lillo's it doesn't really matter. This is a book saturated with the white light of Greece, the claustrophobic dark of the alleys and passageways of Jerusalem, the smoke of remote Indian villages, and the madness of religious fanaticism. Forget about 24 or Martin Amis' exercises in Islamophobia - if you want to understand Mohammed Atta and his friends you ought to read this book.

JG Ballard, The Voices of Time

Forget about sci fi - Ballard is writing about the visionary present. Read him before you end up marooned for weeks on a traffic island, or hunted through a gated suburb by a demented business exec.

Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man

Neurotic young intellectual Karl Glogauer moves through Judaism to Christianity to paganism, before hopping into a time machine and travelling back two thousand years to find out first-hand about the veracity of those stories in the Bible. Back in sixth form my devoutly Christian economics teacher caught me reading Behold the Man in class and confiscated it. After she made the mistake of reading for herself she had nightmares for weeks.

Michael Moorcock, The Oswald Bastable Trilogy

Oswald Bastable crosses and recrosses the twentieth century, passing through many different timestreams. During his travels elsewhen Oswald encounters Stalin as a Georgain warlord, Mick Jagger as an officer on a Royal British air force zeppelin, and Gandhi as the President of South Africa, which has been renamed Bantustan. Moorcock's trilogy is a series of thought experiments in utopia and dystopia.

John Cheever, The Journals

De Lillo, Cheever...why are all the great American poets of the second half of the twentieth century novelists?

Paul Bowles, The Stories

Forget about those blowhards Kerouac and Burroughs, who were too busy being notorious to write well - Bowles is the only Beat worth reading. Unlike his more fashionable fellow travellers, he understands that extreme subject matter requires extreme verbal control.

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

The master. Leaving this book off the list would be like leaving Sgt Peppers off the list of twenty greatest albums of all time.

Frank Sargeson, Collected Stories

In an age when Kiwi writers usually fled overseas, lured by the parasitic 'scenes' of London or New York, Sargeson dug in at Takapuna and waited for the world to come to him. The world came.

Michael Henderson, The Log of a Superfluous Son

A young Kiwi bloke lets his militaristic Dad down by refusing to join the slaughter in Nam. Instead, he takes a job shovelling crap out of a ship carrying cattle from New Zealand to the slaughterhouses of Korea, via a string of isolated islands. He keeps a record of the drunken, chaotic journey in an old partially filled school diary, and Henderson skilfully blends together narratives of adolescent and adult brutality. This is a Kiwi Heart of Darkness.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

The best - ie, the least pleasant - dystopia ever written. Fans of John Wyndham's cosy apocalypses will find themselves tested.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Hillary: the Dr Who option

A couple of weeks old, but still amusing:

Thursday, May 08, 2008

How evil can Obama get?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I'm not a big fan of Helen Clark. Little things like the seabed and foreshore rip-off, New Zealand's role in the invasion of Afghanistan and other parts of Bush's War of Terror, and Labour's pathetic failure to use their nine years on the treasury benches to make serious inroads into problems like poor housing and poverty all make me less than keen on the MP for Mt Albert.

My heart softens, though, whenever I see Ian Wishart or one of his disciples in the Kiwi blogosphere condemning Helen for being a childless mother, or an atheist, or a woman who would have preferred 'living in sin' to marrying, or - and this is where the Wishartian discourse always seems to go, as soon as it builds a head of steam - a lebian feminist witch bent on forcing a totalitarian Nanny state on Kiwi blokedom. When Clark is attacked simply for differing from the stereotype of the 1950s Kiwi woman, then I tend to think that she does represent something progressive - not because of her policy programme, but simply because of who she is.

I'm developing somewhat similar feelings towards Barack Obama, whose eloquent but fairly middle of the road campaign for the US Presidency was ambushed a month back by a very unsavoury alliance. With their scurrillous rhetoric on the campaign trail, Bill and Hillary Clintons have made common cause with the type of people who think that the disappearance of segregated loos from the American South represented the beginning of the end of Christian civilisation.

In the aftermath of her dismal election results the other night in North Carolina and Indiana, Hillary's rhetoric has become even more extreme. In statement after statement she talks about Obama's supposed inability to attract the support of white voters. At a rally yesterday she reportedly said that Obama cannot possibly appeal to 'hard-working Americans, hard-working white Americans'. It's difficult to see such a formulation as anything but an appeal to unsavoury old-time southern stereotypes about them damn lazy negro folk.

A visit to the comments boxes on the blog of one of Hillary's die-in-the-ditch supporters, the rather over-excited Taylor Marsh, makes for even less edifying reading. Here are a few not-unrepresentative remarks left by Taylor's patrons, in the aftermath of the results in North Carolina and Indiana:

I would vote for McCain/Clinton. I would not vote for Obama/Clinton...

i can not believe my COUNTRY is allowing this person to run for president...

Between now and the convention the GOP (bless them. they can't help themsleves) will start blasting O. By then he ( O ) will have more negatives than the devil himslef. The party will have no choice than to pick a better candidate...

I wonder of there are any pictures of Obama with a certain Rev. Louis [Farrakhan] does wonder what all the rumors are about re: an Obama 'October' surprise..or if it's more a superdelegate worry than reality...

Maybe the media will actually ask what kind of a relationship Obama and Farrakhan actually have?? Or maybe about Obama's staffers in IL who were Nation Of Islam members themself??

Or Barack and his black liberation theology-- he speaks of it in his book -- Sean Hannity has played audio of it... Hannity is supposed to be investigating all this...

Can anyone confirm for me whether Obama's cousin is really Odinga, and that Odinga is really trying to impose Sharia Law in Kenya?

...Have you guys read up on how CODE PINK support Obama and have donated money to his campaign $60000 (I believe)-- CODE PINK is that anti-war movement that apparently felt the need to give Iraqi insurgents $600k worth of weapons to use on our soldiers!

Obama is funded and backed by major corps and the extreme left...

believe it or not, all of this is old news -- farrakan, code pink, odinga etc. it just doesn't get coverage and hillary can't push it either, because then she looks bad. it is the party that is screwing up because the republicans will talk about all of it...

It would be tedious to counter all these canards, which are worthy of the likes of Ian Wishart, not rank and file members of the more liberal wing of America's two party state. I can't resist mentioning, though, that Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga is an Anglican, not a Muslim, and that the anti-war group Code Pink has never donated so much as a water pistol to Iraqi insurgents. Why let the facts get in the way of a good delusion, though?

Marsh's blog advertises an even more imaginative critique of Hillary's opponent called Obama - the postmodern coup: making of a fascist candidate. According to the author of this tome, who has the unfortunate name Webster Griffin Tarpley, Obama is a 'deeply troubled megalomaniac' who was recruited into a sort of secret society by a former aide to the Carter administration a quarter century ago. Obama's long game is pretty ambitious, according to Mr Tarpley:

Obama's economics are pure Skull & Bones/Chicago school austerity and sacrifice for American working families, all designed to bail out the bankrupt Wall Street elitist financiers who own Obama. Obama's lemming legions and Kool-Aid cult candidacy hearken back to Italy in 1919-1922, and raise the question of postmodern fascism in the United States today. Obama is a recipe for a world tragedy. No American voter can afford to ignore the lessons contained in this book.

For me, Tarpley's frenzied synopsis hearkens back to the anti-Obama message that a messenger for God left the other here the other day in the comments box under - of all things! - my post on a food bar in Putaruru:


I have felt for sometime now that Obama is the one person that ‘Frightens Me’...

we are AT WAR with the Muslim Nation, whether our bleeding-heart, secular, Liberal friends believe it or not. This man fits every description from the Bible of the ‘Anti-Christ’!

...Since it is politically expedient to be a CHRISTIAN when seeking major public office in the United States, Barack Hussein Obama has joined the United Church of Christ in an attempt to downplay his Muslim background. ALSO, keep in mind that when he was sworn into office he DID NOT use the Holy Bible, but instead the Koran
[hmm - so much for the deep cover as a Christian thing, eh? The Antichrist ain't too smart].

Barack Hussein Obama will NOT recite the Pledge of Allegiance nor will he show any reverence for our flag. While others place their hands over their hearts, Obama turns his back to the flag and slouches [he slouches? That settles it! Shoot him at dawn!]. Do you want someone like this as your PRESIDENT?

Give Taylor Marsh and her commenters another month and she might well be writing like this. Just as the Kiwi left should defend Helen Clark from her sexist detractors, while carefully and critically examining her record in power, so our counterparts in America should defend the first serious black Presidential candidate against racist attacks, without surrendering their critical faculties by succumbing to Obamamania.

I think that, whatever the shortfalls in his policy programme, Obama's strong showing in this week's primaries was a victory against the sort of discourse to which the Clintonistas have stooped. It does seem that a significant number of voters have been more offended by the cynicism and hubris of Hillary than by the young Obama's shocking and shameful support for black liberation and religious diversity.

The most unintentionally hilarious comment on Taylor Marsh's blog is full of disappointment, as well as anger, and expresses quite sublimely the sense of entitlement which has so characterised Hillary's campaign:

What is truly sad about this, is Hillary has been preparing for this role- to be President, to lead our country in the right direction for YEARS!! read her book 'Living History' if you doubt me. She's worked in many campaigns, worked in Bills' many campaigns- her accomplishments are endless (I'll leave them for the book)-- anyways back to my point, she's worked her arse off for this "role" if you will- then some pompous and very arrogant newbie jumps into the scene and thinks he's better qualified, or more deserving?? are you kidding me??

And you wonder why you've lost...