Monday, June 30, 2008

Playing the history card

Every now and then New Zealand's nineteenth century history disturbs the surface of contemporary political discourse, like a taniwha rising from its slumbers at the bottom of a lake whose depth and coldness had been forgotten. Speaking to a mostly Maori audience in Wanganui last week, John Key was foolish enough to dip his toe into the deep waters of the past. Before his incredulous audience, Key insisted that:

One of the unique things about New Zealand is that we are not a country that's come about through civil war or a lot of fighting internally. We're a country that peacefully came together - Maori and the Crown decided from both partners' side that it was in their interests to have a peaceful negotiation. That's what the Treaty was, a founding document - a development document - for New Zealand, and I think that we could work things out in a peaceful, sensible and mature way has actually been a defining part of New Zealand's history. It's very important, and it's important we honour that now.

I'd wager that all that feel good rhetoric would have gone down better at the Orewa Rotary Club than on a marae in the heart of a district which hosted some of the most bitter battles of the New Zealand Wars. The Maori Party was quick to give Key a serve; Labour duly followed, like the cowardly schoolboy who comes to a fight late and aims a couple of opportunistic blows. But the party that gave us the Seabed and Foreshore Act was soon stopped in its tracks, as National Party staff dug up a speech by Michael Cullen that was just as asinine as Key's Wanganui homily.

Undeterred by notions of consistency, some of Labour's supporters in the blogosphere have managed to maintain a tone of righteous indignation about Key's ignorance of New Zealand history for days on end. On blogs like The Standard Key's speech has been recapitulated and ritually denounced in post after post.

The authors of The Standard may have seized on the speech Key made in Wanganui last week, but they have not noticed that the man's attempt to clarify the meaning of that speech was itself deeply dubious. It has been left to that venerable voice of the right, the Granny Herald, to point out Key's latest blunder:

Last week, Key left himself open to doubt that he knew the country's history when he said: "One of the unique things about New Zealand is that we are not a country that has come about through civil war or a lot of fighting internally..."

Well, probably everyone knew what he meant, even his disingenuous critic, Michael Cullen, who accused him of ignorance of the land wars of the 1860s. But Mr Key did not help himself when he replied: "I'm not naive about the land wars - of course there were musket wars and the like. I was asked a question about the Treaty and that happened after the Treaty was signed."

Why that reference to the musket wars, the inter-tribal conflict that raged during the 20 years before colonisation? The ellipsis had nothing to do with his point and leaves us to presume that he did not mean to say it.

I never thought I'd agree with a Herald editorial - well, not apart from the time the paper called for the sacking of John Bracewell, anyway - but the organ of the Auckland oligarchy is spot on when it faults Key for confusing the Musket Wars with the New Zealand Wars. The New Zealand Wars - also often called The Maori Wars or The Land Wars - are usually said to have begun in 1845, when Hone Heke took on the British in the Bay of Islands, and ended in 1872, when Te Kooti led an exhausted band of guerrillas into the safe territory of the King Country, where the Crown forces that had been pursuing him chose not to venture. Many scholars footnote their discussions of the Wars with references to the 'Dog Tax War' of 1898, which saw armed conflict averted at the last moment in the Hokianga, and the violent Crown raid on Rua Kenana and his followers at Maungapohatu in 1916.

The New Zealand Wars were a complicated series of conflicts fought by a shifting ensemble of iwi, British and local Pakeha forces. The driving force behind the Wars was the contest over land and resources by Pakeha and Maori, but many iwi fought with the Crown for historical and practical reasons of their own, and a few Pakeha sided with Maori. The biggest wars were fought in the Waikato in 1863-64, where a British force of twelve thousand pushed King Tawhiao and his folowers off some of the country's best agricultural land, and in the Taranaki during 1868 and 1869, when the brilliant Maori commander Titokowaru repeatedly routed Crown forces before his own army mysteriously dissolved.

If the New Zealand Wars were fundamentally a Pakeha-Maori conflict, the Musket Wars pitted iwi against iwi, and featured little direct Pakeha participation. The Wars, which began in the first decade of the nineteenth century and dragged on until the late 1830s, were made possible by the economic and technological changes that Europeans brought to Aotearoa in the late eighteenth century. The struggle by iwi to produce potatoes, pigs and other commodities in large quantities for new domestic and export markets led to a greatly increased need for land and slaves; the availability of muskets on a large scale gave fighting a new ferocity.

The Nga Puhi chief Hongi Hika remains a bitterly controversial figure amongst many Maori, but he undeniably dominates the story of the Musket Wars. Early in the nineteenth century Hongi befriended the Anglican missionary Thomas Kendall, who took the warrior on a trip to England, in the hope that he might convert wholeheartedly to Christianity. Hongi was bored by St Pauls Cathedral, but greatly excited by a visit to the Royal Armoury. He returned from his OE with a fine supply of muskets, which he used in a series of raids on parts of the country where guns were still a rumour.

The Musket Wars petered out about the time of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, after displacing and decimating many iwi. A tragic sidelight of the Wars was the invasion of the Chatham Islands by two Taranaki iwi, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama, who enslaved the Moriori people that had lived there for many centuries. The Maori newcomers used Moriori labour to establish a pig and potato farming business that fed Wellington (aka Port Nicholson) for years.

It should be evident, even from those short summaries, that the Musket Wars and the New Zealand Wars were two very distinct sets of conflicts. One was fought before the Treaty of Waitangi, between different iwi; the other followed the signing of the Treaty, and was fundamentally a conflict between settler and Maori. By assimilating the Musket Wars to the New Zealand Wars, John Key has confused two radically different parts of our history.

To get a sense of the magnitude of the historical misunderstanding reflected in Key's conflation, let's imagine that Barack Obama was challenged by John McCain to give his opinion of the Vietnam War, and chose to respond by talking at length about the Americans who died at Pearl Harbour and on the beaches of Normandy. Bush's worst gaffe would pale in comparison, and Obama would be laughed out of the US Presidential election. The lack of response by New Zealanders to Key's confusion of the Musket and the New Zealand Wars says a great deal about the lack of historical awareness of large parts of our population.

I find it particularly instructive that the slavering hounds of the pro-Labour blogosphere have completely ignored the rich morsel Key threw them days ago. How is it that they can find time to criticise the architecture of Key's beach house, yet not notice when the man confuses two completely different wars fought on the soil of the country he wants to lead? I suspect that the authors of The Standard and other pro-Labour blogs share Key's encyclopaedic ignorance of New Zealand history. These sites are not really interested in exploring and debating the dense and ambiguous history of inter-iwi conflict and Maori-Pakeha relations in the nineteenth century: they merely want to invoke a simplified version of that history to score cheap political points in an election year. Their attitude to the past is completely instrumental. History is a card they may hold onto or play, according to political exigency. What else can be expected, from supporters of the party which sacrificed its brown support on the altar of the redneck vote with that very nineteenth century piece of legislation, the Foreshore and Seabed Act?

The No Right Turn blog has been another very strong critic of the speech John Key gave at Wanganui last week. No Right Turn is work of a single, 'irredeemably liberal' blogger called Idiot/Savant, and it pushes a political line which is well to the left of that of The Standard and the Labour government.

Idiot/Savant exemplifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of a lot of liberal Kiwi bloggers. He is prodigously productive, churning out several posts a day. He makes passionate cases for civil rights, opposition to US foreign policy, the strengthening of the welfare state, and other causes that should be dear to every heart that beats on the left. But there is little in the way of interesting analysis on his blog: most of his posts seem to recycle news items found in the mainstream media and add a few ejaculations of moral outrage. Idiot/Savant seems to be so busy scanning the latest news updates that he neglects ever to stand back and analyse his material. Reading No Right Turn is a little like listening to an endless series of soundbites.

Over the past few days No Right Turn has thundered righteously about John Key's 'appalling ignorance' of the past, but Idiot/Savant hasn't always been averse to taking history lessons from senior figures in the National Party. Back in March 2004 he posted enthusiastically about former National Cabinet Minister Simon Upton's views on the teaching of Kiwi history:

The latest edition of Upton-on-line compares the teaching of history in France and New Zealand - and the result is unfavourable. French schoolchildren receive a solid grounding in their (idealised, sanitised, propagandised) national story; in New Zealand, it is left almost entirely to chance...

One of the reasons for this is probably because New Zealand history is a) short, and b) fairly boring. Maori settlement, five hundred years of low-tech existence, Captain Cook, European settlement and the Treaty, then (once Maori had conveniently disappeared from the narrative, exiled to the back blocks after their land had been seized) the smooth progression of a socially innovative liberal democracy...

After Idiot/Savant posted these words, I sent him a rather grumpy e mail pointing out that events like the Waikato War could hardly be fitted into his narrative of boring progress, and asking how much reading he had done before he had passed judgement on New Zealand history. I didn't get a reply, but Idiot/Savant did provide some evidence of the depth of his scholarship in a post he made a few months later:

I'd never had the inclination to read much NZ history but I got given the Penguin History of New Zealand for my birthday...after some determined reading I knocked the bastard off...Up until now my knowledge of New Zealand history has had more holes in it than a National Party press release...I've always been happy to read dusty old tomes about other countries' history especially if the country had a decent history of violence to attract my interest.

Michael King had a gift for writing clearly and entertainingly about complicated subjects, and his Penguin History is a generally good introduction to our country's past, even if it is far more partisan than its author pretended (the book's dismissal of the revolutionary character of the Great Strike of 1913, for instance, tells us little about the history of that year and a great deal about King's Blairite politics). It is hard to see, though, how slogging through King's survey could give Idiot/Savant the authority to make his sweeping judgements about New Zealand history. Admittedly, Idiot/Savant seems to find Kiwi history less boring these days, and his attacks on Key's ignorance are sincere. Too often, though, a shaky grasp of the past means his attacks miss their target. In a new post called 'Digging a Deeper Hole', for instance, Idiot/Savant suggests that Key should tell his feel good version of Kiwi history to 'the people the settler government murdered at Parihaka'.

It is quite reasonable for Idiot/Savant to refer Key to the invasion of the thriving Maori community of Parihaka in November 1881. There was little evidence of the goodwill Key claims for early New Zealand governments when Native Minister John Bryce's Armed Constabulary rampaged through the largest Maori settlement in the country, burning whare and plundering pataka. But nobody was murdered at Parihaka: the peaceful resistance which the community so famously offered to the invaders made killing unnecessary. This fact does not in any way detract from the injustice of the invasion of Parihaka, but it does detract from the credibility of Idiot/Savant's argument. Like The Standard, Idiot/Savant seems to think that rhetoric can be a substitute for historical research. John Key is not the only one digging a hole for himself.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Aboard the Union Express

New Zealand has a history of fine trade union newspapers which stretches at least as far back as The Maoriland Worker, the legendary 'journal of industrial unionism, socialism and politics' which was launched by the Shearers Union in 1910 and built a massive readership over the following decade.

Even in this online era, the tradition of quality union papers lives on, thanks in part to the Union Express, the mouthpiece of the National Distribution Union, which represents twenty thousand mostly blue collar workers up and down the country. Edited by the energetic Simon Oosterman, the Union Express not only keeps its readers up to speed with events on the industrial relations front, but also contextualises today's news with forays into New Zealand history. During the furore over last year's so-called terror raids, for instance, the Union Express published long, thoughtful discussions of nineteenth and early twentieth century Tuhoe history, in an effort to help its readers understand why many members of the iwi retain grievances against the Crown, and why Police Commissioner Broad's invasion of the Ureweras caused so much fresh anger. At a time when much of the media seemed about to succumb to the delusion that Osama bin Laden himself was hiding in the central North Island, the Union Express' sense of context was a welcome relief.

I'm pleased that the latest issue of the Union Express includes an edited version of my recent post on the role of the trade unions in the struggle to reclaim stolen land at Bastion Point. Simon Oosterman has shortened my post a little, and added his own introduction:

Thirty years ago, on May 25 1978, police arrived at Bastion Pt armed with bulldozers and army trucks to demolish the Ngati Whatu protest town and remove peaceful protesters who had been on the site for 507 days. The only structure left standing on that black day was a memorial to a protester's young daughter who died tragically in a fire at the site during the protest. Ngati Whatua had been fighting the Crown over eviction and stolen lands for decades before the Bastion Pt occupation. This is a brief story of the union movement's support of Ngati Whatua in the years leading up to Bastion Pt to remind us of the union movement's spirit of solidarity with the oppressed peoples in society.

Union Express isn't published online, but you can read my post on Bastion Point here. I pinched the images at the top of this post from Simon Oosterman. Simon may be best known as an activist, but he also has a passion for photography, and some of his work, which is collected online here, is not only good propaganda but damn fine art.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Pseudo-history in Onehunga

If you've read my post about the myths of Gavin Menzies, or my recent piece about Moriori art for the Scoop Review of Books, then you'll guess the point I'm trying to make in my usual long-winded way in these e mails.

Kia ora,

I was interested to see this sentence on the 'Town History' page of the Onehunga Rotary Club website:

Tradition also speaks of the presence on the area, now known as Onehunga, of an indigenous race of people known as the Morioris, who had fortified and inhabited the land to a degree which astonished the newcomers.

I'd be curious to get a source for this 'tradition' of Moriori pre-settlement of Onehunga, because I've never heard of such stories. In the nineteenth century some ethnographers regarded Moriori as the original inhabitants of the main islands of our country, and believed they had been driven to the Chathams by Maori. Since the 1920s, though, this theory has been discredited amongst experts, and the Moriori are reckoned to be the descendants of group of Maori who became isolated on the Chathams about 1500 AD. Moriori themselves hold to this belief. A good source on all this is Michael King's Moriori: a People Rediscovered (Viking, 2000).

The text on the 'Town History' page goes on to claim that:

It is unfortunate that the knowledge of these earlier settlers is only now being revealed through the work of the 'pre-history' section of the Department of Anthropology at Auckland University . Such information is still rather scanty but visitors who desire further information should contact the University authorities as the "digs" have revealed some very interesting material about the culture of these brown people.

This passage seems to imply that members of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Auckland believe that Moriori lived at Onehunga, and have carried out excavations of Moriori sites there. I don't understand where such ideas could have come from, as no anthropologist at Auckland or any other university believes Moriori lived in Onehunga, or anywhere except the Chatham Islands . In the 1970s members of the Department of Anthropology carried out extensive excavations of Moriori archaeological sites - but these excavations took place on the Chatham Islands , not in Onehunga.

There is a great deal of information available about the indigenous people of Auckland, some of which has been obtained through archaeological digs. The tangata whenua of the peninsula are Ngati Whatua, Ngati Paoa, and Waiohua. The marae of the Waiohua people is located in Mangere, just over the bridge from Onehunga. Perhaps you ought to acknowledge Waiohua on your website, and seek their advice about what to include on your Town History page.


Dear Scott

Thanks for your email. I took this if I remember rightly from a local publication( Not sure if was a Borough Council one) c1950 regarding local history. I would need to look it out as to who history it was. But history and historians seem to come and go in cycles (like everything else). When I get a bit of time I’ll have a look into it.


Kia ora again,

thanks for your response.

The fact that the text on the Town History was taken from a 1950s publication explains something - the myth of the Moriori as a pre-Maori people was extremely widespread then, although it had already been discredited in academic circles. There are some other rather odd passages on your webpage - the references to Maori having to adjust to modern urban life, for instance - which make a little more sense if they were written back in the '50s. I can't quite see the logic in using such an outdated source on a site which was presumably built sometime in the last decade.

The really bizarre feature of the references to the Moriori on your website are the claims that they built extensive fortifications in Onehunga. The false theory of Moriori origins and history developed in the nineteenth century by Elsdon Best and others always emphasised the supposed backwardness of the Morori, and their lack of the sort of large-scale earthworks and architecture that the Maori created. I'm intrigued as to why the author of the text you have put online would make such an eccentric use of the Moriori myth.

You make the point that interpretations of history change over time, and that what seems outdated today might not always be so. I agree with you, but I think that there is an important difference between interpretation and fact. Why Britain and Germay went to war in September 1939 will always probably be a matter of debate, as different historians bring forward different interpretations. Politics and intellectual fashion will help determine which interpretations are popular and which are not at any given time. But the fact that Britain declared war on Germany will not be questioned by a single serious historian.

In much the same way, there will always be debate about many aspects of New Zealand pre-history and the part of the Moriori in that pre-history. Scholars will interpret all manner of events and artefacts in different ways. But there are certain basic facts which will go unchallenged in the future. The nineteenth century idea that the Moriori were a Melanesian people who settled the main islands of this country before being forced to the Chathams by a wave of Polynesian invaders was discredited amongst scholars after the publication of HD Skinner's classic The Morioris of the Chatham Islands, which revealed the close connection between the Moriori and Maori languages, the Polynesian nature of Moriori anatomy, and the strongly Polynesian nature of Moriori material culture. Moriori oral history backed up Skinner's arguments.

Successive generations of scholars have made it ever clearer that Moriori are descended from a group of Maori who became isolated on the Chatham Islands relatively soon after the settlement of the North and South Islands. Archaeological excavations on the Chathams in the 1970s uncovered artefacts made from obsidian and pounamu, materials which are found nowhere in the South Pacific except Aotearoa. In the last couple of years anthropologists at the University of Auckland have tested the bones of the rats found on the Chathams and found that the creatures can all be traced back to one part of the South Island.

There are still mysteries surrounding the Moriori. It is not known for sure whether the Chathams were settled on purpose. Some scholars believe the first wave of settlers on the islands may have been joined by a small number of settlers who arrived directly from Eastern Polynesia. Opinion is divided about whether or not there were distinct dialects of the Moriori language. Nobody, though, believes in the nineteenth century theory that Moriori were Melanesians who arrived in Aotearoa before the Maori, for the same reason that nobody believes Britain declared war on Germany in September 1938 rather than September 1939.

I'm sorry to make my point at such pedantic length. It might seem to you like I am over-reacting to an isolated passage on an obscure website. The reality, though, is that many Kiwis still believe in the myth of the Moriori as a Melanesian, pre-Maori people.

Since last July I have worked on an information desk in a museum, and I have found that the ubiquity of the Moriori myth is a serious obstacle to public understanding of the story of New Zealand history and pre-history. Many visitors to the museum where I have worked arrive believing that the artefacts the museum displays as Maori are actually Moriori. Some think that the Melanesian masks and spears which are displayed in a nearby room are part of the pre-history of New Zealand. More than a few angrily criticise the Treaty of Waitangi or Maori land claims, on the grounds that the Treaty should have been signed with the Moriori, and that places like Bastion Point should be returned to the imaginary Melanesians who supposedly once owned them. Others have assimilated the old picture of the Moriori as 'shifty-eyed' and grotesquely primitive, and claim that they were an inferior people who are now deservedly extinct. Time and time again, the Moriori myth poisons historical understanding.

I have noticed that your website, with its absurd claim that the Moriori built massive fortifications in prehistoric Onehunga, and its completely unwarranted appeal to academic opinion, has played a part in misinforming some visitors to the museum. The Onehunga Rotary Club talks about serving the community, but the misinformation on your website is a disservice to Aucklanders and New Zealanders in general.


Monday, June 23, 2008

Report from a Builders' site

It's a cool Saturday night as Skyler and I drive through sparse traffic into the western part of the greenbelt of Auckland. We turn off the highway down an old portage route covered in gravel, turn again onto a dirt road with an honour guard of sagging macrocarpas, and eventually find ourselves at the door of the small studio where the four sweaty men who form the latest incarnation of The Builders have spent the last forty-eight hours recording an album.

'Ten new songs, I knocked them off in a couple of weeks', an unshaven Bill Direen says, as he wriggles his way onto the couch between Builders drummer Andrew Maitai and keyboardist Andrew McCully. The band's bass player and sometime producer, Brett Cross, sits hunched over a computer screen where thin blue lines of sound flicker and surge. 'I wrote the lyrics for all ten songs first, then found some chords. I don't normally work that way' Bill says, between gulps of Southern Lager. Bill launched a book and a mini-album last Thursday night, at Karangahape Road's Alleluya Cafe; on Sunday he will fly back to Dunedin, where home repairs and teaching duties at the University of Otago both demand his attentions. Last night he slept on the floor of the little studio, waking up every hour or so to overdub a guitar solo or vocal line onto this or that track. Bill has had to work fast: the rest of The Builders live in Auckland, and he won't see them again until the band begins a national tour in November.

It's easy to get the feeling, though, that Bill Direen relishes the speedy and slightly chaotic way that Chrysanthemum Storm is coming to life. Back in the 1980s, when the first incarnations of The Builders helped define the now-patented 'Flying Nun sound', Bill and his sidekicks gained a reputation for composing and recording songs on the spot. Weird aural moments that reviewers attributed to Bill's avant-garde production values were more likely to have been caused by a guitarist tripping over his guitar cable, or a drummer dropping his sticks after burning his fingers trying to light another joint.

Bill smiles and asks Brett to play the rough mix of the tracks they've recorded together over the last couple of days. 'This', Bill says, as the first track slides out of the fuzz, like a long-awaited ship sailing out of thick fog, 'is the first Builders album in twenty years.'

Bill is not exagerrating. During his long periods of European exile in the nineties and early noughties he tended to play without a band, and his music became spare, almost self-effacing. The critically acclaimed 2006 album Human Kindness was recorded in Switzerland, and it is infused with the gnomic calm of a man who has retreated to a mountaintop solitude. But last year's successful national tour by the new-look Builders seems to have rekindled Bill's enthusiasm for the loose, rocky music he made in the 1980s, and Chrysanthemum Storm could sit nicely beside noisy classics like Conch and We Are the Coolest Cats in the World. Maitai and Cross anchor the album with their bass and drums, Bill's electric guitar solos on nearly every song, and the freewheeling, classically-trained McCully sounds like a cross between Keith Jarrett and Al Cooper.

Here's a rough guide to the rough mix of the new Builders album, which should be out by September:

A Lot of Reasons to Smile

A nice mid-tempo groove to kick things off. 'It's good to start on an optimistic note', says Bill, whose understated vocal weaves in and out of McCully's swirling organ:

It snowed last night
This morning the sky was blue...

Baden's Ballad

Bill adopts a faux-German accent for this paranoid little number, which reminds me of The Fall crossed with John Wesley Harding:

Baden was industrious as any ox or mouse,
Baden was never seen again,
Baden was less than a burger of beef...

I decide not to ask Bill what the lyrics mean. Everyone sits up with a start when one of the man's rough, angular guitar solos rides in over McCully's ascending piano line near the end of the song.

Chrysanthemum Storm

A lovely fluttering melody and an organ solo that reminds me of the Able Tasmans at their finest: this has to be the first single, even if the rough mix is as rough as guts.

Criminal Mind

Maitai and Cross lay down a tight, almost claustrophobic rhythm and Bill and Andrew play slivers of chords over it, while Bill mutters a minimalist lyric. Skyler loves it, and so do I. 'I'm suprised' Bill says. 'I thought it was one of our weaker tunes'.

Marie Anon

A gently lilting melody, soft whistling instead of a guitar solo, lines about over-pampered pets: this sounds like Bill's love song to Paris, the city where spends half his time.


You can't have a Builders album without a Big Noise Thing, and 'Rosco' is a very big noise indeed. Bill lets his guitar run wild, but Andrew McCully's huge swirling notes soften the tone, and the song ends up reminding me of Yo La Tengo.

The Stenographer and the Oceanographer

How can a song with a title like that go wrong? Bill's cryptic lyrics float gently over a series of lovely chord changes.

The Story of Le Anne

This is the sort of jaunty rocker that truckies like to listen to going over the Brynderwyn Hills in light traffic.

Nobody's Fault

'This song put me in a bad mood', Bill says. 'It put everyone in a bad mood', Andrew adds. Bill's guitar squeals, and Maitai and Cross keep a fast, angry beat with metronomic regularity, before pulling the ground from under the listener by falling silent with a sickening suddeness. Undeterred, Bill goes on shrieking one of the best lyrics on the album:

When you live in a hole you're afraid of a flood
When you live in the swamp you dig in the mud
When you live in a tunnel you think like a snake...


We Are Experiencing an Influx of Unusual Calls

This song certainly won't make anybody angry. Bill has always been an Irish folk singer at heart, and as the band goes to the fridge for beers he finishes off the album by picking up an acoustic guitar and performing a whimsical little meditation on mortality and bureaucratic inefficiency. Telecom should pipe this song down the line whenever they put a caller on hold.

I need to add a note of caution to this post, because Bill Direen is a notoriously unpredictable beast. In his notes for the booklet of the CD reissue of one of The Builders' early albums, Roger Shepherd observed that 'perversity is not just Bill's middle name, it is his first name and last name as well'. Shepherd remembered that when he worked in Flying Nun's office in the '80s he would always be expecting to hear that Bill had replaced all the guitar parts on his latest album with solos on Tibetan teaspoons. It would be foolish to think that the songs I have just heard will inevitably become the album Bill releases later this year. It is quite possible that a selection of Tibetan tea spoon solos will appear under the name of The Builders. If he chooses to release the songs that I've just heard, though, Bill Direen will give the world a very fine album in September.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lookin' good

I went directly from a meeting between our union committee and the boss to the launch party for three Titus Books and a Bill Direen EP, and I can tell you which event was more enjoyable. I've written a quick review of the new products which will turn up somewhere on the internet sometime soon; in the meantime, here are some photographs. Click to enlarge 'em, if you dare...Jack Ross has posted about the launch on his own blog.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Anti-travel in America

A blogger from the splendidly-titled city of Tuscaloosa, Alabama shares my enthusiasm for anti-travel writing, a genre which he considers 'a less indulgent, materialist take on the Situationist idea of 'drift', and a more scholarly version of urban exploration'. The proprietor of New Plastic Ideas thinks that his neighbourhood is ripe for the genre's practitioners:

When I lived at my last apartment, half of a shotgun-style house 16th Ave in Tuscaloosa, I'd considered...researching the appearance, demographics and other contents of my neighborhood, which was deemed a 'historic' district. That this info was cached in the non-circulating, special collections library was a deterrent. I was already spending 8 hours a day working at a library, and didn't want to spend many more anchored to research. I plan to be more intrepid this summer.

I think that anti-travel writing could work as well in Alabama as Auckland. We often hear about the 'coca colanisation' of the world by 'American culture', and a quick jaunt to the local shopping mall or movie theatre might seem to bear out the charge.

But what exactly is 'American culture'? Are Tom Cruise, Britney, and Mickey Ds really emblematic of American society and history? Might they not in their different ways represent the hegemony of a minority culture inside the States?

The Aussie sociologist of place Paul Beilharz has argued that, as US imperialism has globalised previously peripheral parts of the world, the 'peripheries' of the United States - the deep South, the Tex-Mex border, the obsolescent cities of the rustbelt - have themselves been increasingly marginalised, as aspects of the cultures of a few of the larger centres on the West and East coasts have been codified and commodified into a 'popular culture' intended for internal as well as external export.

The latest post on New Plastic Ideas is a sort of exercise in participant observation research, focused on a symbol of US capitalism that is widely-denigrated yet also somehow little-known:

Like many young, white, angry males with completely ineffective left politics, I hated Wal-Mart rabidly. It was the worst of US corporations -- wasteful, environmentally disastrous, treated its employees poorly, used sweatshop labor, was 'family friendly,' and it was ubiquitous, emblematic of a wasteful, conservative suburban conformity. And those wretched smiley faces. If left unchecked, it would make the nation a homogeneous swath of parking lots and one-story box buildings. I refused to shop there, derided those who did, and for a time my friends and I thought it amusing to get ourselves kicked out of the various 'supercenters' in the vicinity. We'd walk in smoking cigars, act suspiciously so that the plain-clothes security 'shoppers' would follow us around, and make crude announcements on the store-wide intercoms to drive away customers...

Now I work at Wal-Mart. Or, as they said in the 19th century, I've 'got a place' there--at least temporarily...And I have to admit, I was grotesquely fascinated by the prospect of working for one of the world's most rapacious corporations, notorious for its unique internal “culture.” The ideological saturation job the company does on its employees was evident from the day I went in to interview.

Read the rest of the first instalment of the Anti-Travel Guide to Wal-Mart here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Time to go solo?

I've blogged before about Percutio, the elegant little literary annual that Bill Direen founded a couple of years ago in a bold attempt to start a dialogue between the cultures of New Zealand and continental Europe. The second issue of Bill's baby arrived last September, but it has just been noticed by Critic, the Otago University student magazine. Here's what Critic's annonymouse reviewer had to say:

April 17, 2008 13:30

William Direen (Ed.)
Titus Books

Written in a variety of languages and featuring the work of poets, writers and photographers,
Percutio, edited by William Direen is an interesting and, at times, incomprehensible collection of writings. Given the task of writing on a crucial period of development implicit in the creative process, notable New Zealand and French literary figures describe their methods and influence in the 2007 issue of Percutio.

There was some poetry, there was some prose, there were paintings and there were photographs – whether I understood them at all was another issue altogether. J. Ross, Will Christie, Stuart Porter and Jo Contag were notably bewildering. After Sally McIntyre's thoughtful prose describing her take on Nigel Bunn’s photograph 'Untitled 2', Contag's 'U.S. Criminal Code vs. The Poetry of Oscar Wilde' left me utterly confused and ever so slightly baffled – if they were not one and the same. One could identify a sliver of structure in the ideas presented in the various stanzas. Contag seemed to touch on what appeared to be the nature of the US Justice system while also presenting a rather romanticized scene of genial people frolicking through gardens. I'm sure the poet understood what she was writing...

Conversely, Brett Cross's 'a cobble-path theme' or 'un motif de chemin pavé' is a simple and significantly more beautiful poem. In the work, Cross explores the binary opposition between nature and progress. The magnificence of nature is examined in the fourth stanza: “at the valley's foot / circled by peaks of ruptured stone,” while the construction of civilisation culminates in the creation of “a model world.” I also enjoyed the radical Arno Löffler, a German writer who begins his piece of prose by describing the role and popularity of icecream in New Zealand society...

I was adequately satisfied by the work that I did understand. In literature as in life, sometimes you get it and sometimes you don't.

Now, many people reading this post will know Brett Cross as the man behind Titus Books, the enterprising outfit that has given New Zealand a score of new volumes from a dozen authors over the past several years. As the Director and general dogsbody of Titus, Brett has been responsible for correcting Richard Taylor's spelling, elucidating the arcane allusions in Jack Ross' novels, defending David Lyndon Brown against charges of obscenity from outraged librarians, and buying yours truly endless drinks.

After being rated above a number of Titus authors by Critic, will Brett decide to abandon all this rather trying activity, and strike out on a new, solo career? Perhaps the rest of us will have to lift our games?

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Savage attack on Labour

Kiwi music legend Bill Direen is about to return to this country after one of his regular sojourns in Paris. In the 1980s Bill was one of the pioneers of the Flying Nun sound, along with acts like The Clean and Chris Knox. In the nineties and early noughties Bill spent most of his time abroad, but in recent years he has made a return to the stages of his native land. Last year he undertook a national tour with a new incarnation of his legendary band The Builders, and released a new album called Human Kindness, which the Sunday Star-Times called 'a rare gift' that 'makes the world a perceptibly better place'.

Bill is also a writer, and his 2006 novel Song of the Brakeman has attracted both acclaim and scorn from local literary critics. The New Zealand Review of Books criticised Brakeman for being too complex for New Zealanders to understand; by contrast, a reviewer for the venerable literary journal Landfall found the novel 'immensely entertaining'.

In an interview last year with the Dunedin student magazine Critic, Bill said that Song of the Brakeman was written partly as an attack on US foreign policy. The scenes of imprisonment and torture in the novel were, Bill said, inspired by reports from the US 'facility for illegal combatants' at Guantanamo Bay. Bill made another political statement when he and The Builders headlined a benefit gig for the victims of the police raids on pro-Tuhoe activists last year.

Next week Bill will mix music and politics once again, when he launches a new mini-album called Songs for Mickey Joe at the Alleluya Cafe on Auckland's Karangahape Road. The album looks back to the 1930s, and the popular movement that brought Michael Joseph Savage and New Zealand's first Labour government to power, in an effort to draw some lessons for present-day New Zealand. Songs for Mickey Joe is being issued by Powertool Records, and it will be unveiled alongside Enclosures, the new 'short novel in five parts' Bill is publishing with Titus Books. Bill will be reading from Enclosures and playing songs from his new album at the Alleluya. You can listen to one of the tracks off Songs for Mickey Joe and watch one of Bill's quirky 'stick videos' here.

Reading the Maps asked Bill about the message behind his new music...

What interests you about 'Mickey Joe' - Michael Joseph Savage - and the first Labour government?

I was born the year the second Labour government came to power. I grew up during twelve years of National rule. Until the fourth Labour Government, Labour represented a true alternative to selfish, blinkered, uncreative National. Until Labour gained REAL power, that is. The poet and playwright Alan Brunton approached me in 1990 with the idea of putting his words to music. His words would be based on the speeches of Michael Joseph Savage. The idea appealed. Where had Labour gone wrong?

I knew Alan already, and admired both his poetry and his theatrical activities. We were neighbours. I lived in Newtown and he in Island Bay. We both staged performances at the Newtown Community Centre in which our children took part. So I agreed. Alan asked only that the arrangements have the flavour of piano songs from the beginning of the century while capturing something of the aspect of political Messiah that many working people had for Savage. So it was Alan's idea. It was he who was drawn by Savage. However we had discussed with each other (and were shocked by) the steady erosion of the care-based State during the eighties by MPs elected on a Labour ticket.

Note that his play was called Comrade Savage. It was published after the first performances. When he gave me a bagful of lyrics the play had not taken on the 'final' published shape. My album is called Songs for Mickey Joe and not Songs from Comrade Savage because not all the songs I fashioned out of his lyrics were used in the final production. Performances of the play took place over several years using some of my recordings and some instrumental recordings or live work by Michelle Scullion as soundtracks. The lyrics of some of 'my' songs do not appear in the playscript.

Does Comrade Savage have a political message for us today? Should the Labour government of our day listen to it? Could it help them avoid electoral disaster later this year?

The release of this mini-album of songs highlighting the suffering of the unemployed and dispossessed of the 1930s can only help to bring about the end of the current Labour Government. Capitalism relies upon exploitation, and New Zealand society is becoming like a monster that is feeding upon itself, upon its own people.

A new party is needed, one that will provide a true alternative to Labour. People are tired of Labour and through boredom they are going to choose any of the right-wing alternatives. What we need is not a centrist Labour Party, we need a left alternative, so that democracy can really function. The people, especially those who are suffering, who have no hope, poor health care, and whose children are getting brainwashed with dodgy ideas from corporate-controlled television and internet sources have no alternative to Labour. Democracy is in danger.

What's it like recording an album of New Zealandocentric material in faraway Paris? Did the location help or hinder you?

I am a New Zealander. The New Zealand story is my story. My grandfather, a lino-typesetter after he returned from 3 and a half years in Western Europe fighting for NZ (World War 1) lost his job in the '30s. He worked on Savage relief schemes, such as quarrying stone and building breakwaters. My dad grew up in extreme poverty. I had a privileged childhood thanks to his success in life, but the last thirty years I've been on the bones of my bum (like most other musicians and artists who do not make marketable product). I know a wee bit about the tough side of life.

If anyone is interested in Savage, they should buy this mini-album. If they are are interested in Alan Brunton, get hold of his Bumper publications and other poetry. If they are interested in my philosophy I suggest they get hold of my new book Enclosures and take a look at the music-video of the song 'Fewer than Few', on You Tube. That song does have my own lyrics. I am a bit pessimistic these days, but that doesn't mean the fight is lost.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Boozing for Joyce

A couple of weeks ago I posted about James Joyce and his infuriatingly brilliant novel Ulysses. Joyce's magnum opus runs to something like seven hundred pages (Richard Taylor or some similarly scurrillous Joycean pinched my copy a long time ago, so I can't give you a precise number), but the story it tells covers a single day - June 16th, 1904. Joyce, who was very keen on numbers and anniversaries, wanted to honour the date of his first romantic outing with Nora Barnacle, the young Dublin chambermaid who became his wife and muse.

Joyce has become so influential, and so intertwined with those boozily sentimental celebrations of nationalism at which the Irish diaspora excels, that June the 16th has become known as 'Bloomsday', after one of the key characters in Ulysses, and is commonly marked by readings from the novel, most of which seem to take place in pubs. Arihi has let us know about a shindig in Auckland:

Nga mihi nunui ki a Maps koutou ko Richard maa. He reka eenei koorero!

Celebrate Joyce for all the reasons that Maps, Richard et anon. have submitted here, and for your own myriad reasons:

Bloomsday at the Dog's Bollix:
Monday June 16, 8pm
Linn Lorkin and the Jews Bros;
Molly, Leopold, Blazes, The Citizen, Bella Cohen... and more..

There will be a cover charge but I don't yet know how much.



I have heard one or two very solemn literary types objecting to Bloomsday, on the grounds that it 'trivialises' Ulysses. These chaps point out that Ulysses is so long that only very small parts of the novel can ever be read aloud on Bloomsday; they also suggest that booze and literature do not always mix well. I disagree with both arguments.

Ulysses is such an intimidatingly large book that many people refuse ever to begin reading it, on the grounds that they cannot imagine ever finishing. The book's status as a consecrated 'classic' only makes matters worse: many would-be readers must feel that if they do not grasp all the intricacies of the book's themes or symbolism or relation to Irish nationalism then they will have failed some sort of test set by literary canon-builders. Opening the book at random and reading a page or two for sheer enjoyment can be very liberating, and is probably truer to the exuberant spirit of Joyce's prose than all the skeleton keys and collections of critical essays churned out by the academy (Richard Taylor will want to hit me by now).

The argument against reading Ulysses in a pub seems rather threadbare, as well. Wasn't Joyce a notorious boozer? Didn't the frail, short-sighted Irishman once have to be picked up by his mate Ernest Hemingway and carried away from a stoush he'd started in a seedy Paris tavern after a few too many?
And didn't Joyce's cries of 'can you see them Hemingway? Well get them! Get them, my good man!' give way to 'Let's find another tavern!' as soon as the pair were back in the street? That's the legend, anyway...

All in all, I think that Bloomsday is a worthy way of remembering Joyce.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The galleries of the Chathams

My review of Rhys Richards' elegant and fascinating Manu Moriori is up at the Scoop Review of Books, the online journal founded in February to discuss 'important books that fail to get a look-in in the mainstream press', and present 'a different take on works by big name authors'. Worthy ambitions, I think you'd agree.

It's nice to get the thumbs up from Keri Hulme in the comments box under the review...

Monday, June 02, 2008

Return of the cool school

That's right - it's time for the first Titus Books launch of 2008. Titus veterans Jack Ross and Bill Direen will be joined at the Alleluya Cafe by young gun Jen Crawford. Jen will be reading from bad appendix, which is her first full-length collection of poems. Jack will read from EMO, the final instalment of the postmodern sci fi trilogy that began when the late Alan Brunton published Nights with Giordano Bruno through his Bumper Books imprint back at the beginning of the noughties.

2000 was also the year that Alan Brunton published Comrade Savage, one of the last playscripts to come from his prolific pen. Brunton's typically madcap interpretation of the life and ideas of the first Labour Party Prime Minister includes a suite of songs which Bill Direen has been busy recording for an album that will soon be released on Powertools Records. Bill will playing a few of the songs on the 19th, as well as reading from Enclosure, his new collection of short stories.

I'm intrigued to learn that Bill and Jen have spent the first half of the year in the chilly Northern Hemisphere - Bill has been tucked away in an Althusserian district of Paris, while Jen has been shivering in London. Now they're returning to the Land of the Long and Increasingly Chilly White Cloud: Bill, who always has to be the extremist, is settling in Dunedin for most of the winter, while Jen has at least had the sense to choose Auckland.

When I was a kid I used to read Richard Hadlee's accounts of how, as a professional cricketer, he endlessly 'chased the summers', moving between Australasia at its warmest, Blighty in June, the Carribean, and a parched Indian subcontinent. Hadlee hadn't seen a winter his whole adult life, which I thought was pretty choice.

I wonder, though, whether a permanent summer would be good for writers. Bill and Jen, at least, seem to be 'chasing the winters': perhaps the cooler temperatures and inclement weather are as important to them as long rain-free days and hard bouncy wickets were to Hadlee? In his account of his life as a wannabe-professional writer in London, Paul Theroux confessed to feeling intense joy every time winter rolled around, the pea soup fogs rolled in, and sitting inside scribbling by the fire became the only sensible human activity. Bad weather was good for Theroux's discipline.

I'm supposed to be MCing on the 19th, so I think I'll ask our returning Kiwis whether they, too, belong to the 'cool school' of writing...