Friday, October 31, 2008

Walking in history

Last Sunday Skyler, Muzzlehatch and I drove north through the slowly gentrifying railway town of Helensville, crossed the invisible remains of the Glorit Line, the quixotic attempt to protect 1940s Auckland from a Japanese invasion that never came, and turned left down Taporapora, the hammerhead shark-shaped peninsula that divides the northern and the southern stretches of the Kaipara Harbour. Tucked away in a northeastern corner of the isthmus is Atiu Creek Farm Park, one of the newest provinces in the empire known as the Auckland Regional Council.

Unlike most other ARC properties, Atiu Creek was not bought by government: its owners, the Anglo-Swiss-Kiwi Chatelanat family, have gifted the farm to the people of New Zealand, on the condition that family members be able to continue to live and work on it. The Chatelanats have been adding their labour to the soil of Atiu Creek Farm for more than half a century, running large herds of sheep and cattle and growing crops in the odd paddock. Senior members of the family have long been determined to protect their paradise from the depredations of subdividers and golfers. Working in concert with ARC planners, local historians, archaeologists, and members of the tangata whenua, the Chatelanats have created a park which should be a model for others the length and breadth of the country.

Atiu Creek Farm is beautiful - it sits on rolling hills adorned with groves regenerating native bush and windbreaks made of massive poplars and oaks, and it is bordered on three sides by a lake-like arm of the Kaipara. It's not only scenery, though, which commends the park: the Chatelanats and their allies have done an exceptional job of preserving and presenting the human history of Atiu.

Ancient and nineteenth century Maori archaeological sites have been carefully fenced off, and described in signs and leaflets. Tracks take visitors to the site of two ancient pa, where members of the Te Uri o Hau iwi (close relatives of Auckland's Ngati Whatua people) would defend the strategic Opou portage route, which connected north and south Kaipara. The names of various parts of the property remember the mighty dead: the little stretch of coast called Solomon's Bay, for instance, celebrates the mana of a local chief who led his people against Hongi Hika's Nga Puhi invaders during the epic battle at nearby Kaiwaka in 1825, during the height of the Musket Wars. Four new wooden pou symbolise the mana whenua that Te Uri o Hau still exercise over Atiu Creek.

The more recent history of Atiu Creek has not been neglected. A late nineteenth century European camp is remembered, along with an old oyster farm that still leaves its mark on the coastline. What is perhaps most notable about the park, though, is the attention that it gives to the cultural history of the dairy and sheep farming operations that have prevailed on the property for the past hundred years. It is now common to see the ARC and organisations like the Department of Conservation give space to the ancient and nineteenth century history of their lands, but less common to see the more recent past get its due. At Atiu Creek, though, there are detailed and fascinating displays about the day to day lives of the workers who made the farm into a profitable enterprise, and the culture that these workers developed.

On a wall of Atiu's huge woolshed, which is built in a central European style very unusual on New Zealand farms, a map shows the sometimes-bizarre, sometimes-droll names of the many paddocks of the property, and explains the stories behind them. In odd corners of the farm, signs tell the stories of the men and women who broke in and worked the land. One sign, for instance, commemorates 'Irish Jack', who liked to wander the property playing the bagpipes, and insisted on building fences in a perfectly straight line, no matter what terrain he encountered. Other signs give clues about the role Maori played as labourers working the land their hapu had once owned, and explain the Chatelanats' visionary decision in the 1950s to reforest the degraded landscape they had inherited from earlier settler farmers.

Walking through Atiu Creek Farm Park is like reading a very entertaining history book, and it's much better exercise than bookworming, too, as Muzzlehatch and Skyler found out to their discomfort. Only the oysters which I pulled out of the mud at Solomon's Bay sustained Muzzlehatch on the long march back to the car, and during the somewhat shorter drive to the pub at Warkworth.

The rock and the roll

'You can't have the rock without the roll' is one of the favourite sayings of Andrew 'love machine' Maitai, Powertool Records boss and drummer in the latest incarnation of The Bilders, backup band for Kiwi music legend Bill Direen. Maitai has only just finished travelling the length of the country drumming and driving for Direen's Powertools stablemate Sandra Bell, but he's hard at work organising a tour to publicise Chrysanthemum Storm, the forthcoming album from Bill and The Bilders. When I bumped into Andrew the other day he had a bad case of phone ear, after having spent days negotiating gigs and bar tabs with publicans from Takaka to Taupo to Timaru. Andrew put his phone aside long enough to watch Skyler put the finishing touches on this splendid poster (click to enlarge it), which employs some of the images and designs she has already given to the cover and sleeve of the new album.

When I reported on the recording session for Chrysanthemum Storm, I noted how different Bill's new songs sounded to the tracks on his acclaimed 2006 album, Human Kindness. Human Kindness was a cool, minimal affair, recorded solo in a studio high in the Swiss Alps: Chrysanthemum Storm, by contrast, is an upbeat, often rowdy collection, and therefore much more representative of the sound of the live performances of the latest incarnation of The Bilders. The album is due out in mid-November, and will be sold alongside pieces of Bill's immense back catalogue, at the gigs on the forthcoming tour. You know you want to be there.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Not just a pretty map

Ferdinand von Hochstetter is best-known to Kiwis as the creator of a series of exquisite geological maps of various regions of their country. Back in June, I used a detail of Hochstetter's most famous creation, his geological map of the Auckland isthmus, to illustrate a post to this blog; an enlarged version of the whole map adorns a wall in the Auckland War Memorial Museum's popular permanent exhibition on volcanoes.

2008 marks the one hundredth and fiftieth anniversary of Hochstetter's arrival in Auckland, and the Auckland Central Public Library is celebrating the 'father of New Zealand geology' with an exhibition which is long on pretty maps and rather short on historical context.

Over at the Scoop Review of Books, I've questioned whether Hochstetter deserves to be celebrated, given his hostile attitude towards the tangata whenua of this country and the role that his work played in the Waikato war of 1863-64 and the subsequent confiscation of the much of the land of the Tainui peoples. I argue that Hochstetter and some of the other Austrian scientists who visited these shores in the late 1850s were not pious scholars, interested only in adding to the sum of human knowledge, but rather captives of a racist, pseudo-Darwinian ideology which foreshadows the creed of Nazism. Read the full argument here.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Thompson and the electronic commons

English historian, political activist and poet EP Thompson grew up in the era of massive, rickety, rackety typewriters, and in his old age he always refused to buy a computer, even when most of his fellow researchers and writers had discovered the benefits of the new-fangled devices.

Thompson's distaste for computers, and the small fact that he died in Septmber 1993, made me somewhat surprised to discover that the great historian has launched a My Space page. Perhaps, though, Thompson sees the internet as a new, electronic version of the commons that he celebrated in many of his histories? Perhaps his spirit is drawn toward the unfenced expanses of My Space and the blogosphere?

In his My Space profile, Edward names John Sayles' Matewan as his favourite film, and gives the thumbs up to Bill Direen when he proclaims that he 'likes folk music from everywhere'. Edward gives his martial status as 'single', which might not please Dorothy.

I'm very pleased to see that Edward links to one of my blog posts - it became a thesis chapter - at the top of his page. It's nice to know I've got the big guy in my corner when I argue about the interpretation of his work.

Another chapter of the good old PhD thesis has just been published in the academic journal Thesis Eleven. 'Between Zhdanov and Bloomsbury' considers the great man's poetry, which has generally been considered the ugly duckling of his oeuvre. Edward will be pleased, I think, because he always wanted to be a poet far more than he wanted to be a historian. If he's not pleased then I suppose he can always criticise me from beyond the grave, through his medium at My Space...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The discovery of Limestone Country

In his marvellous novel The BFG, Roald Dahl notes that every atlas ends with a blank page. This page, Dahl suggests, is for places that have yet to be discovered - lands across the sea, or on other planets. But new places do not have to be found faraway - they can be discovered in blank spaces on the maps we have already made.

I discovered a new land on a page of a dogeared AA Road Atlas, where the thin yellow line of a gravel road suddenly vanished, like a stream going underground. A shaky hand had scribbled 'Limestone Country' over the blank space between the upper stretches of Raglan Harbour in the south, the Huntly district of the Waikato in the east, and the mouth of the Waikato River in the north.

For years I wanted to know what lay in that blank space, but I never got the opportunity - I did once make it to Waikaretu, a little village just west of the Huntly district, before the tyre of mate's car mysteriously exploded - and I never wanted to look at a more recent map, or consult the chaotic encyclopedia that is the internet. Over the years, Limestone Country became a sort of liminal place, like Tarkovsky's Zone - a site where I could project all sorts of fantasies. Was the area covered in primeval bush, or blazing gorse, or manicured deer farms? Was its limestone arranged in strange shapes on the surface, or did it sit underneath a mine? Had the military surrounded Limestone Country in barbed wire? Had archaeologists or fossickers invaded it yet? Was the coastline menaced by millionaires' homes?

Early last in June I managed to convince Skyler to accompany me into Limestone Country, using pathetic appeals to my upcoming birthday to extract the favour. We drove in through the rough coal country west of Huntly, past flooded mines and scrubcutter's huts, then dropped down Waikaretu Valley Road, then turned north, watching massive weirdly-sculpted limestone formations push their way through the green hills, like bones emerging through flesh. Plantations of elephant grass, ragwort, gorse, and woolly nightshade were interrupted by stands of huge, intricately gnarled puriri and rimu. In the middle of this strange landscape we discovered a cafe, which was owned and run by old friends of Skyler, and which boasted a Ponsonby barista and six months' supply of fair trade coffee from Colombia. After refuelling there we pushed north, down a narrow valley where the last tributary to the Waikato ran, until we reached Port Waikato, where New Zealand's longest river had grown gray and bloated.

A month of so later I revisited Limestone Country with Muzzlehatch, during one of the storms that made the winter of 2008 New Zealand's wettest in a decade. We entered the area from Port Waikato, after barely getting across a series of flooded waterways. Soon the rain changed gear, sending sheep and goats out of the weeds and into the bush. We decided to follow them, and bush-crashed off the road. Eventually we heard the hoarse voice of a creek, which we followed into the hills, until the hoof tracks we were walking in dissolved in the downpour.

We waited near the creek until the rain eased, swigging whiskey and smoking to stay warm, and arguing about an unusual tree we had discovered - I thought it might be a baobab, while Muzzlehatch insisted it was a native which had 'gone mutant' under the weird conditions of Limestone Country. When the sky had faded to grey we detoured back to our dripping car over a series of steep bald hills where middens lay like piles of ancient fragile coins. Now that I've actually been to Limestone Country I've felt that it's safe to start researching this odd and beautiful part of New Zealand. Despite what that old atlas tried to tell me, a potholed, gravel-voiced road runs right through the region from north to south. There is no road from east to west, though, so the wild Tasman coast between Port Waikato and Raglan can only be reached by four wheel drives, horses, and - if you're in better shape than Muzzlehatch and I - Shank's pony.

Limestone Country was settled by peoples of the Tainui waka many hundreds of years ago, as they pushed north from their stronghold at Kawhia Harbour. The settlers buried carved stones in the soil, to ensure its fertility, and kept the bones of their dead in caves in the limestone. Today marae still stand on the sites of ancient villages.

Limestone Country was a part of the Waikato Kingdom, the independent Maori state which was invaded by British troops on the 12th of July 1863. After the defeat of King Tawhiao and the exile of many of his followers the Maori hold on Limestone Country was weakened, but the region's remoteness and lack of roads meant that it was not opened up to Pakeha farmers until the first decades of the twentieth century.

After the First World War a huge block of land in the heart of the region was acquired by Charles Alma Baker, a former surveyor who had made a fortune from Malaysian rubber and counted Zane Grey amongst his fishing friends. Baker named the block Limestone Downs, and ruled it like a private kingdom. He imported gangs of Dalmatians to clear and fence the wilder parts of Limestone Downs; the immigrants lived in coastal villages that Maori had abandoned during the tuberculosis pandemic of 1918.

In the 1920s Baker discovered the esoteric theories of Rudolf Steiner, abandoned the use of conventional fertiliser, and began a series of disastrous experiments in occult agriculture at Limestone Downs. Baker became steadily more eccentric, until he decided that all the nutrients needed to sustain life came directly from the sun. In his last years Baker was often seen wandering Limestone Downs naked with both arms raised toward the sun, in the hope that its life-giving rays might rejuvenate his bloated wrinkled body. Baker bequeathed his estate to a trust, which runs a sheep and dairy farm on conventional agricultural principles. Smaller sheep farms cover much of the rest of the cleared land in the Limestone Country. In the 1930s the young Elsie Locke hiked through Limestone Country with a friend. Locke would go on to become a distinguished author and educationalist, and she included an account of her journey in her 1981 autobiography, Student at the Gates. Locke remembered stripping naked to cross the Kaawa River, which flows into the Tasman south of Port Waikato, only to find that the river's waters barely reached her ankles. In the '30s many Maori had returned to Limestone Country; they lived far from roads and electricity, in tiny villages close to the Tasman coast. Many did not speak English, but they gave Locke food and shelter. Today Limestone Country is visited by the far-flung peoples of Tainui, who enjoy the hospitality of the many marae in the area during tangi or sports days, by Lord of the Rings fans, who seek out the location of Peter Jackson's Weathertop Mountain, and by the fossil-hunters who chip trilobites, ammonites, and - more rarely - dinosaurs out of the region's millions of rocks.

Many people may have seen the place before me, but I still like to pretend that I am, in some obscure sense, the discoverer of Limestone Country. I'll have to track down that old AA map and fill in that blank space.

Writings of a dog of war

Back at the beginning of 2007 I reviewed a biography of Tom Wintringham, the son of Grimsby who served on the Western front during World War One, was jailed for his revolutionary socialism in the 1920s, commanded the British section of the International Brigades during the bloody struggle to defend Madrid from Franco's fascists in 1937, and became the unofficial leader of the British Home Guard - 'Dad's Army', to generations of comedy fans - during World War Two.

Wintringham lived such an action-packed life that it seems remarkable he ever found the peace to write anything, but his oeuvre runs to hundreds of thousands of words, and includes everything from autobiographical reminisences to treatises on military tactics and strategy to political polemic to spectacularly bad poetry. Now the volunteers at the magnificent Marxist Internet Archive have placed a selection of Wintringham's scribblings online.

Wintringham was not the sort of man to compose sentences for some ideal future audience - the subject and style of his writings were always dictated by the needs of the present. It is remarkable, then, how topical some of the pieces he wrote seventy or eighty years ago seem today. Wintringham's dissection of the economic crisis that gripped Britain in the early 1920s echoes uncomfortably in 2008; his discussions of the difference between guerrilla and conventional warfare, and his insistence on the ultimately political nature of all war ring true in an era when Western armies are once again entangled in Afghanistan and Iraq; and his warning about a Labour government's attempts to settle disputes between workers and bosses in the interests of bosses would probably resonate with a few Kiwi trade unionists.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Laws: 'Obama isn't actually black'

Barack Obama's seemingly unstoppable march on the White House has alarmed all manner of bigots, and the dim denizens of the racist right are perhaps the most peeved off.

Let's face it - Obama's powers of oratory and his trouncing of that grumpy old warhorse John McCain in debate after debate rather give the lie to the Klannish notion that black folks are too stupid to deserve equal rights, let alone the highest office in America.

But now the good ol' boys whose Aryan pride is threatened by the thought of a clever black man in the White House can rest easy - Radio Live talkback host Michael Laws has discovered that 'Obama isn't actually black'. Laws made his startling claim on his nine to noon talkback show last Thursday. According to the former MP and current mayor of Wanganui, Obama has 'nothing in common' with the majority of black Americans, who live 'in the ghetto'.

Laws explained that, by succeeding at university, making a career in law, and rising through the hinterland of US politics to become a Senator and then a Presidential contender, Obama had chosen to 'go white'. Obama's success was a credit to 'white' civilisation, and his journey away from blackness was a lesson to New Zealand's Maori people, as well as African Americans. 'Race doesn't really exist, class is what's important' Laws claimed. Obama, it seems, grew up in a black 'working class' family, but stopped 'being black' when he left his class origins behind.

Laws' argument that race is an irrelevant concept in Western societies like the US and New Zealand is common on Kiwi talkback radio, especially when subjects like the Treaty of Waitangi and the Maori Party come under discussion. The claims that 'we're all one nation now', that poor people with coloured skin have nobody but themselves to blame, and that state policy and funding should be 'colour-blind' almost won the 2005 election for the National Party, and probably still meet with the approval of the vast majority of white New Zealanders. This does not, of course, make them true.

But Laws' contention that people of colour who become successful in education, in their careers, or in politics are 'turning white' goes a lot further than the sort of 'one nation' populism heard so often from the mainstream right. Laws' claim implies that Western societies like the United States and New Zealand are inherently 'white' societies, that the fruits of these societies are the product of 'white' civilisation, and that people from cultures which are not 'white' must abandon their outmoded affectations if they want any sort of success in life.

Laws' arguments are, of course, nonsense. There is no such thing as 'white civilisation', anymore than there is such a thing as 'Asian civilisation'; it is doubtful whether we can even talk reliably about the existence of a 'white race', unless we want to rely on the myths of the racist right. Both the United States and New Zealand are the products of the mingling of many distinct cultures. The Maori who kickstarted market gardening and dairy farming in this country in the nineteenth century did not need to give up their language, or raze their meeting houses; the blacks who invented the styles of music that America has exported around the world were not imitating Bach or Chopin.

Laws' views on Obama, race and class divided his listeners. A number of callers were enthusiastic; one, for instance, amplified Laws' points by saying that 'all these Maoris need to learn a lesson - go white if you want to succeed in the world'. Others, though, were confused by Laws' awkward mix of meritocratic and racist rhetoric. One caller asked Laws whether National Party leader John Key was 'not a Caucasian anymore', because he had grown up in poverty before getting a good education and making large sums of money.

Michael Laws' radio show has long been unpopular with Maori. Even Willie Jackson, Laws' Maori colleague at Radio Live, has characterised him as a 'racist loony' who 'goes around stirring up hysteria against brown people'. But Laws' show is popular with many Pakeha, and Laws himself has been re-elected mayor of Wanganui by a huge margin. Wanganui was a garrison town during the New Zealand Wars, and there have always been racial tensions there. In 1995 these tensions came out into the open during the epic occupation by protesters of Moutoa Gardens, a piece of land near the centre of Wanganui which was stolen from Maori in the nineteenth century.

When I was in Wanganui for a wedding a couple of years ago, I watched an elderly, respectably dressed gentleman wander up and down the street, collecting donations for the One New Zealand Foundation, an anti-Maori outfit that publishes broadsides by Kerry Bolton, New Zealand's best known neo-nazi. I noticed that the old gent was very careful never to approach a Maori shopper with his donations tin.

Much like that elderly racist, Michael Laws lacks the courage of his beliefs. He uses phrases like 'white civilisation' and 'going white', knowing that they will resonate with the racists in his political constituency, but tries to muddy the waters with pseudo-meritocratic populism and talk about race being 'unimportant'. The result is the sort of bizarre argument we heard on Thursday morning. Surely Radio Live can do better than Laws? The man makes Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan sound like paragons of rationality.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

brief turns thirty-six

In between behaving in a dubious manner at poetry readings, Brett Cross and his guest co-editor Bill Direen, who was sensible enough to stay out of this picture, have pulled together a good thirty-sixth issue of brief around the theme of 'New Zealand music'. Not only do you buyers get well over a hundred pages of poems, stories, rants, and reviews - there's also a CD full of loose bluesy jams, experimental 'sound pieces' and semi-coherent poetry readings thrown into the bargain.

Harvey Molloy is enthusiastic.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dreaming mishaps

I should post something about the global economic crisis, which I've been discussing today in this mildly frustrating indymedia thread (keep scrolling down, and you'll find that the comments gradually get less idiotic), but instead I'm going to stick up two recent instalments in my on-again, off-again dream logbook; in my defence, I might say that both the dreams I've recorded seem to allude obscurely to the ongoing economic turmoil.

There are a number of dream-poems in my 2007 book, To the Moon in Seven Easy Steps, which you can now order online.


Tonight Pleiades is a squadron of burning bombers flying over Auckland, as the Manukau overfills and leaks into silted estuaries, and a Bedford van blows a tyre and spins to a halt, making a barricade on the southern motorway, near the turnoff where the old portage went through hip-deep mud,

tonight Pleiades is seven fighter-bombers smudged by smoke, pursued by radar and a wind off the Tasman, moving in a slow arc, moving high enough to disguise the slowing drone of their second engines, to mute the explosions in storage rooms and reserve fuel tanks,

tonight Pleiades is a flock of burning B 52s, flying over Auckland in an unsteady arc, flying on autopilot, now that the crews have parachuted, flying more brightly with each explosion,

flying and burning and waiting to fall

The Building Site

I closed the door, kicked the last cans into a corner, pissed in a pot plant, groped the armchair for smokes, and rolled into an unmade bed.

I woke up in starlight, with my duvet soaked in dew. A man with a glowing torso pushed a peg into the clay at the edge of my bed, then turned, and took fifteen slow paces, like a fast bowler measuring his run, then turned again and nodded at his mate, who was kneeling between my armchair and my dresser, planting the theodolite like a conquerer's flag.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Gnawing Martin

I was lucky enough to make it to the launch of Martin Edmond's The Big O Revisited in the University of Auckland's Biology Department, during the last leg of Martin's recent New Zealand tour. This photo shows Martin alongside his mate Michael Steven, whose Soapbox Press rescued The Big O Revisited from a damp Sydney cupboard and the gnawing criticism of the Aussie mice.

I've done my own bit of gnawing over at the Scoop Review of Books.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Forever Tuesday evening

If they achieved nothing else, my posts about the recent shenanigans on Radio Live seem to have helped bring a very promising new blog into the world. The Joy of Radio is the baby of two media studies lecturers, and is intended to be 'a collection of comments, articles, and ideas about the state of radio broadcasting in New Zealand'.

In his inaugural post, one of the proprietors of The Joy of Radio explains that as he read my criticisms of Radio Live he realised that 'there is no regular commentary about New Zealand radio'. Another post on The Joy of Radio considers some of the wider issues at stake in the arguments about the behaviour of Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan on that fateful Tuesday night and argues that talkback radio in this country suffers from an 'endemic' lack of talent and lack of education. I wouldn't dispute that judgement, though I am surprised to see the appallingly uninformed Kerre Woodham and that cynical old populist Paul Holmes cited as exceptions to the rule.

The latest post at The Joy of Radio celebrates Radio New Zealand's Concert station, which is presented as an oasis of musical sophistication and diversity in a desert of Top 40 and Golden Oldies stations.

While there's some truth to this judgement, I can't help but wonder whether Concert FM sometimes tends to become classical music's equivalent of a Golden Oldies station. It's all very well to note that the station selects tunes from many different epochs, and sometimes plays jazz and World Music, but I wonder how often the Four Seasons gets played, compared to the compositions of 'challenging' living composers like Steve Reich or Arvo Part? And what sort of jazz does Concert FM occasionally indulge its listeners with? Is it more likely to be the twisting, turbulent Miles Davis of late 1960s and the early '70s, or the safe old standards of Dave Brubeck?

I think the conservative set lists of Concert FM and the rather stuffy manner of its presenters delimits the station's audience just as surely as the cruder antics of most talkback hosts delimit the audiences of stations like Radio Live.

Even if I disagree with some of their judgements, I am pleased that the proprietors of The Joys of Radio are trying to foster a serious and informed discussion about a part of the media that has been neglected by many commentators in the blogosphere.

And since Concert FM probably won't play it anytime soon, here's Steve Reich's drop- dead gorgeous 'Electric Counterpoint':

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Four of the best

Some of you may be surprised to learn that I haven't spent the whole of the last week hunched beside the radio, notepad in hand, waiting for talkback hosts to say silly things. In fact, I've managed to get out of the house enough to see two exhibitions, a movie, and a dance performance.

There's nothing particularly unusual about that - I usually try to relieve the pain of visiting Auckland's CBD by ducking into a gallery or two, I'm regularly persuaded to visit movie theatres by the shocking state of Kiwi television, and I've even begun to appreciate the strange art of dance under the wise tutelage of Skyler. What really is unusual is the quality of the stuff I've seen in galleries and theatres over the past week.

My run of good luck started when I wandered into a dark room at the back of the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery in Hamilton. I thought I'd walked into some sort of empty storage room, and was about to turn around and leave when I noticed half a dozen circular screens flickering high above my head. The screens had been attached to huge tyres, which were in turn attached to the ceiling of the room. I had thought myself alone in the room, but as my eyes became accustomed to the gloom I noticed a dozen or so bodies sprawled about on the floor, where thoughtful curators had placed long black mattresses.

I had just lain down and made myself comfortable when the artists responsible for this mysterious installation turned up, and began to give an impromptu lecture. Sculptor Brett Graham and film-maker Rachel Rakena explained that Aniwaniwa (the word can translate as either 'rainbow' or 'disturbance') had been conceived as a tribute to the people of Horahora, a small town built near Hamilton to house the mostly Maori workers at New Zealand's first hydro station. Horahora flourished for a few decades until it was inundated by the lake created by the big new hydro dam a little further down the Waikato at Karapiro.

Brett Graham is a member of the Ngati Koroki sub-iwi of Waikato, whose rohe includes Horahora, and he spoke about about the sadness his relatives felt when their little town was drowned. Graham added that he and Rakena had tried to recreate the easy comfort of a Ngati Koroki meeting house by laying mattresses on the floor of their exhibition space and inviting audiences to take a rest. 'We don't mind if you snooze', he added.

While Graham spoke, the screens near the ceiling showed the extraordinary film Rakena had made amidst the ruins of Horahora: in one scene, two children blew bubbles as they struggled to take the washing down from a line that had hung underwater for decades; in another, a man dug laboriously for potatoes on the bottom of Lake Karapiro.

Rakena explained that most of the actors in Aniwaniwa are Ngati Koroki volunteers, and that their performances are designed to represent the dispossession the group had suffered since the invasion of the Waikato in 1863. 'It's incredibly difficult to swing a shovel underwater, to dig and keep your feet on the ground', she observed. 'That's what Maori have been trying to do for a long time'. Other parts of Rakena's film have an abstract, painterly quality: silver and grey streak across the camera's deep green eye, as it is dragged at speed through the Waikato; later, a turbine churns the dark water white, and the camera rises from the deep and and advances into a wall of rising flames, as an angry haka is piped through the gallery's speakers. Aniwaniwa is beautiful as well as fascinating, and I was pleased to hear it was exhibited to great acclaim at the last Venice Biennale.

Like Aniwaniwa, Lisa Reihana's entry in the 2008 Gordon Walters Art Awards takes some of its inspiration from the traditional Maori meeting house. Lately I've been reading Michael Jackson's memoir The Accidental Anthropologist, which includes a beautiful description of the experience of entering a wharenui:

To step into a Maori meeting house is to step into another world. The noise of the outside world is hushed. As your eyes become accustomed to the gloom, you became aware of the carved ancestors along the walls, eyes blazing, bodies tensed with ferocious power. The soles of your feet make contact with woven mats on the floor. The atmosphere is one of unnerving intimacy. You are drawn backwards to primeval beginnings...

To enter Lisa Reihana's Digital Marae is to step into the future, as well as the past. Reihana has covered the walls of two rooms of Auckland's City Art Gallery with enormous photographs of a series of mythopoetic figures who are at once strange and familiar, comforting and terrifying. Some of the figures are performing supernatural feats, like flying above the clouds or emerging from a warp hole in outer space; others find themselves in contemporary Auckland. Many of Reihana's portraits feature motifs and mannerisms from a variety of cultures and eras: a character named 'Dandy', for instance, wears a warrior's moko and a Victorian gentleman's suit, clutches a carved tokotoko (orator's cane), and sits on a stainless steel chair that looks like it was designed by Alvar Aalto.

Digital Marae also includes a blurred, ghostly film and two panels showing a flickering psychedelic pattern that somehow recalls the complex tukutuku panels Maori women weaved for traditional meeting houses. In a note accompanying this astonishing exhibition, Reihana explains that she was prevented from visiting a meeting house when she was a child, and that she is using art to create a turangawaewae for herself in twenty-first century Auckland.

For many years now film-maker Shirley Horrocks has been meticulously documenting New Zealand's cultural history. Horrocks' portraits of writers like Allen Curnow and Albert Wendt and visual artists like Len Lye and Marti Friedlander have themselves become an important part of New Zealand's cultural infrastructure. Unlike some of her counterparts in academia, Horrocks is able to communicate with a wide audience at the same time as she does justice to the complexity of her subjects; it is not surprising that a number of her documentaries have attracted large TV audiences.

I was delighted to be invited to a trial showing of a Horrocks documentary about the New Dance Group by my friend Lani-Rain Feltham, who has worked for some years now as Shirley's researcher. Like Aniwaniwa, Horrocks' new film stylishly retrieves a forgotten piece of New Zealand history. For a few short years immediately after World War Two, the all-female New Dance Group dazzled and bemused audiences in Wellington's school and community halls with its modernist, politically-charged performances. One of the group's dances was called Sabotage at a Factory; another protested the destruction of Hiroshima. The group used music by Soviet modernists like Shostakovich, and developed steps and geatures inspired by the movement of the machinery of modern factories and the weaponry of modern war.

The New Dance Group dispersed as its members married, had children, and vanished into the hinterland of the patriachal philistine society that was 1950s New Zealand. The group still languished in obscurity when historian Maria Schultz discovered some footage of its performances and approached Shirley Horrocks with the idea of co-producing a documentary.

The New Dance Group fascinates me, because its work seems so different to that of better-known modernist innovators active in mid-century New Zealand. The dancers' unashamedly urban, industrial inspiration contrasts starkly with the rural subject-matter of modernist painters like Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston and modernist poets like Allen Curnow. The group's preoccupation with politics also stands in contrast with the otherworldy, often spiritual interests of the likes of McCahon and Curnow. If it had survived and prospered, the New Dance Group might have have had a salutary influence on Kiwi artists working in other genres.

While Lani-Rain Feltham has been studying the history of dance in New Zealand, her sister Rosey has been helping move the artform into the future. Rosey is the founder and leader of BackLit Productions, the dance troupe which gave the premier performance of The Story of Stuff at the Auckland Town Hall last week. Like the creations of the New Dance Group, The Story of Stuff manages to be political without being preachy. 'The Story of Stuff' is a Noam Chomsky essay about the absurd side of the 'consumer society' capitalism has created; the BackLit crew arrange a series of dances and skits around this theme, without worrying too much about constructing a narrative or a linear argument. Last Wednesday's performance was alternately hilarious and chilling, as witty satires on body image and celebrity TV morphed without warning into choppy, tortured dances that evoked the difficulty of being a young woman in a society obsessed with telling young women what to look like and what to buy.

In one particularly eerie scene, Rosey and her friends stepped tentatively from one consumer object - a TV, a stereo, a computer - to another, trying desperately not to touch the ground. It was as though they were crossing a raging mountain stream by stepping from one slippery boulder to another. Anyone who has ever spent their pay check on overdue hire purchase payments will understand Rosey's metaphor.

On the day that The Story of Stuff premiered, Rosey was profiled in the Granny Herald's trashy Viva section. Rosey wanted to talk about the extraordinary works she is writing and performing, but Viva's interviewer insisted on quizzing her about such weighty subjects as her favourite place to shop and her favourite colour. I can't think of a better example of the sort of stupidity that The Story of Stuff attacks.

As you can see from these hurried reviews, I haven't had a bad week. If you're sick of sitting at home listening to talkback radio, then get out of the house and see Aniwaniwa, Digital Marae, The New Dance Group, and The Story of Stuff.

Monday, October 06, 2008

'Incomprehensible', or anti-semitic?

I've had my two cents' worth over last Tuesday night's shenanigans on Radio Live, and don't intend to harp on further about the judgment of Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan. There's been a lively debate in the comments boxes, with Jack Ross making some particularly interesting points.

Without going over old ground, I wanted to discuss the comments which a caller named 'Peter' made on Radio Live last Tuesday, because I think these comments reflect a long-running discourse of New Zealand's extreme right. Here's an excerpt from Peter's call to Radio Live:

A lot of people just don't realise what happens - Adolf Hitler, before he went mad, he actually created credit to fund the projects in Germany just like the Labour Party created credit to build state housing in New Zealand. So it was also about money. He obviously went mad, and lost it. But before he went to war, and did stupid things, he would have gone down as a great leader...'

Peter went on to contrast Michael Cullen's policies as Finance Minister with those of his 1930s heroes. Karyn Hay has defended her failure to criticise Peter's opinions, saying that:

Peter is obsessed with the '1949 State Housing Act'. I do not believe a word Peter says. Let me re-phrase that. I do not understand what it is that Peter is calling for, as most of the time I find his arguments incomprehensible.

But Peter's arguments are not at all incomprehensible, if the person listening to them understands something of the history of fascist politics. Peter is not some lone eccentric, expressing hopelessly idiosyncratic opinions - he is regurgitating talking points which have been made for many decades by the New Zealand far right.

Peter presents Hitler as a 'social crediter' - that is, as a follower or fellow-traveller of Clifford Douglas, the Scottish engineer and amateur economist who believed that the Great Depression and similar cataclysms were the result of the gap between the amount of wealth generated in a capitalist society and the amount of money circulating in that society. Douglas argued that governments should print and distribute a special sort of money - a 'social credit' - to cover this shortfall, and thereby reduce the destructive power of 'Jewish bankers'.

Peter wrongly believes that Hitler's public works programmes, Labour's state housing scheme, and Harry Truman's State Housing Act were funded by the printing of 'social credit'. In fact, Hitler and Truman had no need to print money to acquire the funds their programmes needed, and Michael Joseph Savage's Labour government chose to fund its increases in spending by borrowing heavily from British banks. John A Lee, the Minister for Housing in Savage's government, advocated a mild form of Social Credit to fund some spending, but he was unable to win the support of more than half a dozen Labour MPs for the measure.

Clifford Douglas drew huge crowds when he visited New Zealand after World War Two, and in 1953 his followers founded the Social Credit Political League, which was for decades this country's largest third party. A few years earlier Australian Douglasites founded the League of Rights, which emphasised the anti-semitic aspects of Social Credit ideology. The League of Rights eventually established a strong branch in New Zealand, and made a number of determined and partly-successful attempts to infiltrate the much larger Social Credit Political League. Although it conducted a number of purges of the extreme right-wingers, Social Credit never succeeded in shaking off accusations of anti-semitism.

In his book Social Credit, Inside and Out, which was published in 1981, the year the party took a fifth of the votes in a general election, ex-member Michael Sheppard described the anti-semitism of many followers of Clifford Douglas. Sheppard discussed the popularity in the party of None Dare Call it Conspiracy, a publication of the American John Birch Society which was distributed in huge numbers in New Zealand by groups like the League of Rights and Zenith Applied Philosophy:

This the by-now-familiar story of a power-mad group of millionaire bankers who are set on controlling the world, some of whom (not all of them, mind) happen to be Jewish...In a fantasy world of hidden conspiracists anything appears to be possible.

At Social Credit's 1979 conference, Sheppard stood up to say that he was 'proud to be Jewish and proud to be a member of Social Credit.' His statement was met by 'total silence'.

Sociologist Paul Spoonley discusses the politics of the League of Rights and similar groups in his 1987 book The Politics of Nostalgia: racism and the extreme right in New Zealand. As well as meticulously documenting the activities of the far right, Spoonley uses a class analysis to uncover the roots which groups like the League have in New Zealand society.

Spoonley characterises the League's ideas as a type of petty bourgeois radicalism. A typical League member feared the power of both left-leaning governments, strong trade unions, and big business. The struggling farmers and small businessman who embraced Douglasite ideas were often crippled by sky-high interest payments on their mortgages, as well as overdue tax payments and demands for wage increases from their employees.

Conspiracy theories about global finance - theories which draw on classical anti-Semitism - are popular with the radical petty bourgeois right, because they connect international finance to the spectres of big government and socialism, albeit in a nutty way. None Dare Call It Conspiracy fitted the needs of the Douglasites perfectly, because it laid the blame for the Russian Revolution, World War Two, the welfare state, and the United Nations at the door of a cabal of international financiers.

The figure of Adolf Hitler presents anti-semitic Douglasites like Peter with a dilemma. A marginal, heterodox ideology like Social Credit is greatly bolstered if its adherants can find a historical example of its success, and both Hitler's anti-semitism and his combination of anti-communism and statist economic policies make him appear attractive to many Douglasites. On the other hand, popular revulsion at the Holocaust and Hitler's other dark deeds means that open support for Nazism is not politically viable in New Zealand.

Peter's attempt to differentiate the 'good' Hitler of the 1930s from the 'bad' Hitler of the war years is a typical rhetorical manoeuvre of the extreme right. In 1994, when the League of Rights was trying to organise an Australasian lecture tour for him, neo-Nazi pseudo-historian David Irving gave a much-publicised interview on New Zealand's National Radio. When he was asked whether he admired Hitler, Irving replied using a formulation Karyn Hay might recognise:

That's a difficult question...I think that Hitler was up until the end of the 1930s a very admirable man...there is no question that if Adolf Hitler died in a car accident in 1939 there would be statues of him up all around Germany...

The New Zealand League of Rights dissolved itself last year, but elements of Douglasite anti-semitism live on in Democrats for Social Credit, the rump of the old Social Credit party, and in the Nationalist Alliance, a collection of fascist groups in Christchurch and Wellington. Both organisations are contesting this year's general election. Neither deserves to be able to make its case in public without criticism.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Who got hung, Karyn?

Radio Live host Karyn Hay and producer Adrian have both replied to my post about the flood of anti-semitic talkback calls to their station last Tuesday evening. Neither Karyn nor Adrian denies that Tuesday night's show was dominated by conspiracy theorists trying to lay the blame for past and present financial crises and wars at the door of a shadowy cabal of money men.

Between them, Karyn and Adrian make two defences of the content of Tuesday night's show. Adrian argues that the nature of the show reflected the open, democratic qualities of Radio Live talkback, and denies that Karyn and her co-host Andrew Fagan should be criticised for refraining from questioning the opinions of their callers. For Adrian, Tuesday night was not about 'wrong and right, black and white' but about 'learning, expanding, and entertaining the mind'.

For her part, Karyn argues that she knew that the opinions of her callers were nonsense; she only let the conspiracy theorists go unchallenged because she wanted to 'give 'em enough rope' to 'hang themselves'.

I think that Adrian's argument is mistaken, and Karyn's argument is transparently dishonest.

I share Adrian's enthusiasm for open, democratic debate on talkback radio and elsewhere. But genuine debate about important and highly sensitive issues like genocide and war has to be grounded in an understanding of basic facts. It is necessary to make a distinction between facts and interpretations of the facts, and to insist that certain crucial facts are not as open to debate as interpretations of those facts inevitably are. It is one thing to argue about the causes of Hitler's persecution of the Jews; it is another thing altogether to deny that this persecution took place. It is one thing to discuss the reasons for the 9/11 attacks; it is another thing altogether to deny the most basic facts about these attacks, by alleging they were the result of some sort of Jewish conspiracy.

I don't object to Radio Live hosts letting anti-semites talk on air. I do object when the hosts don't intervene when their guests try to lie their way around basic historical facts that set the parameters for rational debate. As I've said during discussions on this blog about the myths of a pre-Maori people, the falsification of history inevitably poisons political discussion.

Karyn's claim that she was merely giving her callers 'enough rope' flies in the face of the record of Tuesday night's conversations. Karyn not only listened uncritically to her anti-semitic callers - she appeared to be taken in by some of these callers.
After one anti-semite recommended Antony Sutton's bizarre Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler, which blames Jewish bankers for the Holocaust and calls for state monitoring of Jewish groups in contemporary America, Karyn looked the book up on the internet, read its publisher's blurb, and said that it looked 'very interesting'.

Karyn and Andrew's conversation with an anti-semitic caller named 'Peter' is also worth discussing, as an example of their credulity. Here's a transcript of a part of the beginning of Peter's call to Radio Live last Tuesday night:

Karen: It's 9.19. Hello 'Peter'...

'Peter': Hello...A lot of people just don't realise what happens - Adolf Hitler, before he went mad, he actually created credit to fund the projects in Germany just like the Labour Party created credit to build state housing in New Zealand. So it was also about money. He obviously went mad, and lost it. But before he went to war, and did stupid things, he would have gone down as a great leader...'

'Peter' went on to make a series of criticisms of current Finance Minister Michael Cullen, whose cowardly appeasement of Jewish bankers apparently contrasts poorly with the deeds of Michael Joseph Savage and Adolf Hitler.

Neither Andrew Fagan nor Karyn Hay had anything to say against Peter's praise for a leader who was sending hundreds of thousands of Jews, socialists, and other 'undesirables' to concentration camps long before he supposedly 'went mad' and started World War Two. Andrew responded to Peter's arguments by saying, without a hint of sarcasm, 'with your body of knowledge mate you've got to go into politics'. Karyn also commented on 'all the factual information' in Peter's comments, saying that 'my frontal lobe has reached my knees'.

Were Karyn and Andrew really trying to give 'Peter' 'enough rope' to hang himself? It seems to me that if he hung himself, he hung Karyn and Andrew, too.

I'll comment on the real identity of 'Peter' and the agenda he brings to Radio Live in a later post. In the meantime, I wanted to thank the bloggers and commenters who have joined me in calling on Karyn and Andrew to pull their socks up and engage their brains.

And if anyone's after a sane take on the current financial crisis, they could worse than this.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Why is Radio Live spreading anti-semitic lies?

The ongoing turbulence in global financial markets has alarmed many New Zealanders. More than a few Kiwis fear that the nosediving US sharemarket signals the beginning of a global depression that will cost them their jobs and mortgages. This week alone the Reserve Bank has been forced to issue two separate statements insisting that the country's banks are safe from the danger of collapse.

Many people are looking around for explanations for the economic calamity that now seems to threaten them. Talkback radio is one forum where Kiwis have been sharing their experiences of the financial crisis and suggesting reasons for its existence.

Unfortunately, some callers to talkback radio have been taking advantage of the current crisis to disseminate some old and ugly ideas.

Last Tuesday night tens of thousands of Kiwis tuned in to the talkback station Radio Live to hear a succession of callers blaming the chaos in the world's financial markets on a conspiracy run by Jewish capitalists and their allies. Radio Live talkback hosts Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan not only refrained from criticising these anti-semitic arguments - at certain points in the evening they actually joined in the myth-making.

The deluge of calls began just before eight o'clock on Tuesday evening, and didn't end until ten o'clock, when Fagan and Hay ended their shift. The first caller to advance an anti-semitic explanation for the financial crisis identified himself as 'Dean'. Saying 'it's alright for me to kick the Jews, because I'm Jewish myself', Dean argued that the 'greed' of a group of 'Jewish bankers' had caused the insolvency of American banks and the collapse of Wall St shares. Dean claimed that Jewish bankers had also caused the Great Depression and World War Two, and that the Holocaust had been a 'backlash' against them. Near the end of his call, Dean announced that he had been promoting his views at public meetings, and predicted that a 'new backlash' would punish Jews for the latest crisis.

Talkback radio hosts tend to set a 'tone' which determines the sort of people who ring their shows. A left-wing host, for instance, will usually attract more callers with left-wing views than a right-wing host. Listeners feel empowered to call in when they hear a host espousing or accepting views similar to their own. Neither Karen Hay nor Andrew Fagan had a word of criticism for Dean's anti-semitic rant; not surprisingly, they were soon deluged with callers who advanced similar views.

Several of the callers explicitly defended Hitler and Nazism. One woman argued that Hitler's rise to power was an inevitable and understandable result of 'multiculturalism', which supposedly tore apart the 'fabric' of German society after World War One. She suggested that the same sort of 'multiculturalism' was ruining contemporary New Zealand society.

Another caller insisted that Hitler was a 'great leader' before he 'went mad' and started World War Two. According to this caller, Hitler was a hero in the 1930s because he stood up to 'international bankers' in the same way that New Zealander's first Labour government supposedly did. If the examples of Michael Joseph Savage and Hitler had been heeded, then the 'the bankers' would never have been able to create the current financial crisis.

Yet another caller to Radio Live claimed that the peoples of the world were the victims of an international Jewish conspiracy that stretched back to the Boston Tea Party, and suggested that gold from the World Trade Centre had been secretly shipped to Tel Aviv in the aftermath of 9/11. Other callers condemned Nazism and anti-semitism, but claimed that Hitler was only the tool of the same international conspiracy of bankers behind the financial crisis of 2008.

At no stage in the evening did either Karyn Hay or Andrew Fagan confront callers about the crackpot theories they were touting. One caller recommended that Hay read Antony Sutton's Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler, which argues that a cabal of financiers were behind the Bolshevik Revolution, the two World Wars, and Hitler's regime; in response, Hay looked the book up on the internet, read its publisher's blurb, and said that Sutton's arguments 'sounded very interesting' and 'made sense'. Later in the show Hay opined that 'it does look like Hitler's rise was all to do with money'. Andrew Fagan responded to the caller who praised Hitler as a 'great leader' by saying 'with your knowledge, you need to get into politics'. An elderly woman who rang Radio Live to say she was outraged by the 'rubbish being talked about Hitler and the 1930s' was cut off by Hay.

It is not hard to trace the geneaology of the arguments that were made on Radio Live last Tuesday night. Most of them descend from the anti-semitic mythology that the Nazis and other fascist movements popularised in the 1930s. The argument that communism is a weapon of Jewish financiers, for instance, was a stock in trade of the Nazis, and recurs frequently in Mein Kampf. The claim that a cabal of mostly-Jewish financiers control world events has been a staple of the extreme right since the late nineteenth century, and was made famous by Nazi broadcasters like Lord Haw Haw, who blamed World War Two on greedy Jewish bankers, rather than the belligerence of Hitler.

Not all of the callers to Radio Live advanced explicitly anti-semitic arguments. Some of them talked of a conspiracy by 'international finance' or 'the New World Order' rather than by Jews. Anthony Sutton's book is not explicitly anti-Semitic. Neither is None Dare Call It Conspiracy, a booklet produced in America by the John Birch Society and distributed for free to tens of thousands of New Zealanders by the right-wing religious cult Zenith Applied Philosophy. But conspiracy theories about a cabal of international financiers frequently refer to sinister Jews, and just as frequently rely on anti-semitic material for their references. None Dare Call It Conspiracy, for instance, cites the nakedly anti-semitic newspapers funded by Henry Ford as 'evidence' for its claim that a small group of bankers funded the Bolshevik revolution. Many of the financiers fingered as sinister conspirators by Sutton are Jewish.

Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan are not bigots. Their radio show is usually an inoffensive mixture of good music, jokes, gossip, and semi-serious discussions of current events. It is perhaps ignorance, rather than prejudice, which stopped Hay from confronting and criticising the conspiracy theorists and anti-semites who inundated her show last Tuesday evening. At one point during the show, Hay admitted that 'I'm not that well-versed historically', and it is possible she didn't even recognise the sinister overtones in the arguments that some callers made. For his part, Fagan seems averse to discussing politics in any detail. He preferred to try to change the subject, rather than challenge the arguments of callers.

Like the rest of the media, talkback radio should be free of censorship. The fullest spectrum of views should be heard in places like Radio Live, even if the price is the sort of anti-semitic ranting that was heard on Tuesday night.

Is it too much, though, to ask hosts like Karyn Hay and Andrew Fagan to challenge and refute a set of myths which have such a long and evil history? Is it really so hard to see through the claim that Hitler was a great leader during the time of the Nuremberg Laws and the Kristallnacht? Is it so hard to see the absurdity of the claim that capitalist bankers orchestrated communist revolutions in Russia and China? Does the claim that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks really deserve to go unchallenged, when it lacks a shred of supporting evidence?

If they want to take calls about serious subjects like the current financial crisis, then perhaps Hay and Fagan need to adopt a more serious attitude toward the politics of history. Radio hosts who allow anti-semitic arguments to go unchallenged become complicit in anti-semitism.