Monday, June 29, 2009

Instead of silence

The curators of the National Army Museum might want us all to ignore the Kiwi connection to the Spanish Civil War, even as they sanitise the fascist general who started that war: Mark Derby, however, has other ideas. Derby's new book Kiwi Companeros tells the stories of the New Zealand soldiers, doctors, nurses, and journalists who took part in the 1936-39 war, as well as the stories of the foreign veterans of the war who settled in this country after the guns fell silent.

Derby discussed Kiwi Companeros on National Radio's Ideas programme last Sunday morning, and this week the Scoop Review of Books has published responses to the text by Simon Nathan and yours truly. Neither review is intended as a definitive treatment of Kiwi Companeros, and I hope that the comments box at the Scoop Review of Books will see other readers express their opinions. A vigorous, serious discussion would make a nice contrast to the mixture of revisionism and forgetfulness that has so far marked the National Army Museum's treatment of the Spanish conflict.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Blame it on the Boogie

Sometimes when we mourn the death of a loved one who has suffered a long illness or physical decline we are also able to feel a compensatory relief that their suffering is over. We feel relieved for ourselves, as well as for the person we have lost: instead of having to confront them at their most diminished, we are suddenly able to remember them at their best.

It's hard not to feel a certain relief at the death of Michael Jackson this morning. Although Jackson's death has been described as sudden, he had been dying for a quarter of a century, as the world looked on with a mixture of fascination and disgust. There was a sadomasochistic quality to Jackson's long decline: he had been robbed of his childhood and his privacy by the same talents that delighted his fans, and he seemed determined to punish those admirers as well as himself by becoming the very opposite of the irresistable young man who had made such astonishing music.

In place of the confidence, innocence and joy that are such features of tracks like 'ABC' and albums like Off the Wall , the older Jackson offered us paranoia, corruption, and self-loathing. The world's media made sure we were forced to endure the self-mutilation of his plastic surgery, his creepy relationships with kids, and the ostentatious reclusiveness that saw him fleeing from his own press conferences and peering between curtains of hotel windows to ogle flashing cameras.

Now that Jackson's protracted agony is over, we can at least remember the young man who made music like this:

It was impossible to grow up in South Auckland in the '80s without knowing every second of this song. You heard it at school, when the teachers went off for lunch and the big kids turned on the bopblaster they had hidden in the sports shed; you heard it on the pearl-shaped AM radio that blasted away behind the counter of the fish and chips shop where you'd play spacies after school; and you heard it three or four times, at least, during the booze-free blue light discos that the Papakura cops used to run in an unsuccessful attempt to keep local teens away from harmful influences.

And, in case Muzzlehatch and some of the other highbrow musos around here are guffawing at a post dedicated to Jackson, here's the lead singer of the coolest British band since the Beatles doing 'Thriller':

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Franco in Waiouru

In his recently-published book Kiwi Companeros, historian Mark Derby laments the lack of acknowledgement of New Zealand's connection to the Spanish Civil War in this country's war memorials and museums.

A number of Kiwis journeyed to Spain to help defeat the attempts by Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini to overthrow that country's democratically elected government, and a handful of young men sacrificed their lives in the fight against fascism in Iberia. Despite this fact, there is no public memorial to the New Zealanders who served in Spain, and the Kiwi role in the conflict is not noted at either the Auckland War Memorial museum or the National Army Museum at Waiouru.

I visited the National Army Museum a couple of weeks ago, during a research trip to the snowy central plateau of Te Ika a Maui. I was impressed by the museum's design - an elegantly brutalist concrete bunker surrounded by a moat seemed entirely appropriate - and by the thorough and balanced treatment it gave to the nineteenth century wars between Maori and Pakeha. I was disappointed, though, by the museum curators' reticence about a conflict that was an important precursor to World War Two.

Does it make sense for the curators to explain the anti-fascist motivations of many of the men who volunteered to fight Hitler, without mentioning that these sentiments had in many cases first been aroused by Hitler's treatment of the Spanish people? Is it reasonable for the museum to tell the story of the Nazi air raids which devastated Britain in the early forties, without also telling the story of Guernica, and explaining that Hitler had perfected the art of terror bombing in Spain 1937 and 1938? Is the museum's presentation of the New Zealand Home Guard that prepared to wage a guerilla war against Japanese invaders not incomplete, without an acknowledgement that the force's training was largely based on lessons learned by the anti-fascist forces in Spain?

It seems that the museum in Waiouru doesn't neglect the Spanish war entirely, though. Anybody who visits the homepage of the institution's website will be greeted by a series of pop-up quotes about war from famous leaders. The quotes they tend to consist of the sort of cliches that generals and politicians use to garnish their speeches with gravitas. Franklin D Roosevelt, for instance, tells visitors to the website that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'. The curators at Waiouru don't seem to mind that Roosevelt was talking about the Great Depression, not war.

What I find remarkable is the National Army Museum's decision to take one of the pop-up quotes on its homepage from the man who brought fascism to Spain. The museum's homepage quotes Franco as saying 'men, not commodities, are the dearest material in war'.

The words themselves are, of course, unobjectionable. Even fascists say sensible things sometimes. It would be possible, I'm sure, for the museum at Waiouru to find some sage words from Hitler or Mussolini to put on its website. I doubt, though, whether the museum would consider it appropriate to present these figures as founts of wisdom on its homepage. Why is Franco any more palatable than the men who helped him to power?

Franco's own practice makes a mockery of the words attributed to him on the website of the National Army Museum. Many of his troops were Africans attracted to the fascist banner by the lure of wages, not by ideology. Franco regarded them with contempt, and had no compunction about sending them charging at the guns of Republican armies without proper artillery or air support. Franco also regarded the anti-fascist soldiers his armies captured as expendable: during and after the war, he shot tens of thousands of them and buried them in mass graves which are only now being excavated.

If the National Army Museum's failure to tell the story of the fight against fascism in Spain was a mistake, its decision to trumpet the wisdom of the leader of fascist Spain on its website is nothing short of an insult to the men and women Mark Derby commemorates in Kiwi Companeros.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ignoble savages?

I’ve appreciated many of the posts on Louis Proyect’s blog, because Proyect is one of the relatively few contemporary Marxists who has taken a strong interest in the situation of indigenous peoples in First World nations like the United States. I agree with Proyect’s criticisms of some of Marx’s early, ‘imperiocentric’ works, and I share his enthusiasm for some of Marx’s late and still little- known writings, like his studies of agrarian reform in Russia.

I can’t entirely agree with Proyect’s new blog post, though, because I don’t recognise the assumptions he brings to it. Proyect considers the theory that the first settlers of North America were the ‘Clovis’ people, who crossed the Bering Strait over ten thousand years ago and began hunting woolly mammoths and the other huge beasts that roamed across what is now Canada and the United States. Advocates of the Clovis theory have argued that the pioneers were such successful hunters that they wiped out most of the megafauna of North America in only a few centuries, and that their descendants were therefore forced to develop an agricultural society.

Proyect thinks that the Clovis theory tells us more about Western prejudice than the facts of prehistory. He believes that the advocates of the theory are projecting some of the more brutal realities of industrial capitalist society into the distant past. Proyect has been a long-time critic of Jared Diamond, and he finds the author of Guns, Germs and Steel guilty of misusing the Clovis theory:

perhaps no other evolutionary psychologist has embraced the Pleistocene overkill scenario with more relish than Jared Diamond who wrote an entire book—The Third Chimpanzee—making the case that we are nothing much different than these marauding apes... his interest in these matters is highly ideological and this is the way to understand it. Like many of his co-thinkers, there is a need to establish primitive man as primitive in the sense of brutal... Proyect argues that the extinction of much of the ancient megafauna of North America was probably caused by a comet strike or some other natural cataclysm, rather than by indiscriminate hunting. He believes that, far from being evidence of the irredeemably evil nature of humanity, prehistoric societies can actually be models for a future society:

a hunting and gathering society had little need to kill animals except to satisfy such needs as food, clothing and shelter—all of which a bison could supply. Even in cases where there was “overkill”, like driving animals over a cliff, the main goal was to satisfy an immediate need. Once that was accomplished, the community could devote its time to singing, dancing and other forms of recreation that Marshall Sahlins described in terms of Stone Age affluence.

On the other hand, capitalism sees all flora and fauna as input to the commodity production process. Bison were killed initially in order to supply hides for the European clothing market and later on they were exterminated in order to free up land for cattle ranching. Today vast trawlers scour the ocean to turn the last bluefin tuna into the last sushi special. Meanwhile, American Indians struggle to defend their right to fish for Salmon and whales as part of their traditional way of life. Some ecologists can’t distinguish between the trawler and the Makah motorboat, but that would not be the first time in history that an Indian gets a raw deal.

As socialists, our goal should be to create a world in which the production of what Marx called use values prevails. This means adopting the communal structures of Clovis peoples and their successors but combining it with modern technology. This finally is the only way in which the remaining megafauna can survive, including homo sapiens.

I share Proyect’s antipathy for Jared Diamond, and agree with his criticisms of the tendency to ‘eternalise’ our modern industrial capitalist society by proclaiming that it is merely an instantiation of some fictional ‘human nature’. I can’t agree, though, that the Clovis thesis was an attempt by archaeologists and other scholars of the past to tarnish Palaeoindian society.

The Clovis thesis is very much a creature of the middle decades of the twentieth century, when a series of mysterious discoveries were made in remote areas of North America. After being confronted by simple flintheads embedded in the excavated remains of the mammoth and other long-extinct animals, archaeologists decided that North America had been settled for much longer than they had hitherto suspected, and that the earliest settlers of the continent must have hunted the megafauna they found there to extinction.

In recent decades, though, evidence has been gathered which suggests that humans were living in South as well as North America even earlier than the Clovis hunter-people, and that creatures like the woolly mammoth might have been wiped out by a comet or some other natural disaster.

The Clovis thesis may have been mistaken, but it seems to me that Louis Proyect’s interpretation of the ideological motivations for the thesis is also mistaken. Proyect believes that the image of vast numbers of massive beasts being slaughtered by fearless but reckless Indian hunters makes the indigenous people of North America seem like ‘the Wehrmacht’. But horror at the mass slaughter of huge animals like the mammoth was not a common sentiment when the Clovis thesis was being coined and developed in the middle of the twentieth century. It is a sentiment which has only become truly widespread in our own, more environmentally sensitive era. Jared Diamond may be tut tutting the Clovis hunters for their alleged exploits, but he is very much a latecomer to the Clovis theory.

Fifty or sixty years ago, the denigration of indigenous peoples very often took the form of the belief that they were ‘outside history’, and that their societies therefore never made any ‘progress’. Hunter gatherer societies, in particular, were often considered almost immoral because they did not seem to alter their natural environment in any ‘progressive’ way, and because they never seemed to produce technological innovations. The Australian Aboriginals are a classic example of a group (or groups) of people whose supposed lack of impact upon their environment was used as a justification for their dispossession and oppression.

It is only in relatively recent times that the denigration of ‘timeless’ societies has become less widespread. In place of this denigration, we are often now treated to a sentimental celebration of peoples who are able to ‘live in harmony’ with their environment and avoid the ills of the modern world.

At the time it was created, the Clovis thesis probably owed a great deal to the most powerful paradigm for the study of American history, the so-called Turner thesis. According to Frederick Jackson Turner, the outlines of American history and society have been shaped by the frontier which the early European settlers of the continent crossed and ‘tamed’. In the era when the United States was becoming the world’s pre-eminent imperial power, Turner and his many disciples presented the country’s history as an epic, largely admirable story of conquest and adaption.

I’m hardly the first person to suggest that the Clovis thesis, which imagined Palaeoindians bravely confronting and overcoming massive beasts then having to innovate in response to the changing demands of the environment they had ‘tamed’, seems like an adaption of Turner’s theories to prehistory.

The Clovis thesis may well reflect the tendency of its creators to imagine the past in terms of the present, but it can hardly be considered to have been an attempt to besmirch Palaeoindians as environmental vandals. Of course, those like Jared Diamond who recycle the theory now, when it has not only been discredited but has very different connotations, may well have the malign motives Louis Proyect detects.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

'I did a lot of work when I was able': remembering John Saville, 1916-2009

I have just learned that the British historian John Saville has died in his nursing home at the age of ninety-three. Saville's political sympathies, personal courage, and intellectual abilities meant that he was involved in some of the most important events of the twentieth century, yet he was an incorrigibly modest man who lived for most of his life in the same small house in the unfashionable provincial city of Hull.

Saville got his swarthy complexion from his Greek father, who died in his native land after returning there to fight in World War One, but he took his name from his mother's second husband, who worked as a tailor in the Lincolnshire town of Gainsborough. After winning a series of scholarships, the eighteen year-old Saville found himself a student at the London School of Economics, where he quickly gravitated towards the Communist Party. Saville's parents had been apolitical, and he had been an enthusiastic teenage member of the Anglican Church, but the suffering caused by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe seem to have steered his thinking leftwards.

Although his intellectual abilities had given him an unusual range of career options, the young Saville was aware of the impact that the Depression was having on Britain's working classes. In Gainsborough, for instance, 70% of the population was unemployed in the early '30s. To many young Britons appalled by the suffering the Depression was causing and by the advantage that fascists were taking of this suffering, the Communist Party seemed like the only possible political home. The Labour Party had split over the proper response to the economic crisis, with its leader and some of its highest-profile members forming an alliance with the Tories and implementing right-wing economic policies that were only exacerbating the crisis. The section of the party which had rejected the Tories had little idea about what to propose in place of cuts to government spending and appeasement of the fascists who had taken control of Italy and Germany.

In middle age, Saville would recall that he did not write a single essay during his first two years at the London School of Economics; he was too busy, apparently, organising political meetings and selling copies of the Communist Party's Daily Worker newspaper. In his third and final year, Saville finally applied himself to his studies, spending fourteen hours a day reading his way through the rather dull canon of economics classics. He graduated in the middle of 1937 after attaining exceptional exam results, and was offered a prestigious research scholarship. Instead of setting himself up for an academic career, though, Saville puzzled his friends and family by getting a job as a courier for a travel agency.

Saville's choice was not as quixotic as it seemed. Although they paid a pittance, his employers repeatedly asked him to travel to Germany, and he used these journeys to smuggle messages from Britain's Communist Party to the underground anti-Nazi resistance there. One of Saville's journeys almost ended in disaster: after the ship he was taking across the English Channel struck a rock in a storm, he found himself clambering into a lifeboat and landing on an obscure piece of coast called Dunkirk.

Saville was called for military service in 1940, and trained in artillery. He was stationed with an anti-aircraft battery in the docks of Liverpool, and spent the winter of 1940-41 shooting at the Nazi bombers that made nightly raids on the town. Saville repeatedly refused promotions that would have taken him away from danger, but was eventually forced to leave his unit, become a sergeant-major, and train new recruits in the arts of gunnery.

After refusing further promotions that would have kept him in Britain, Saville was despatched to India in 1943. He quickly discovered that 'the jewel of the Empire' was a society in revolt against British imperialism. Tens of thousands of Indians had taken up arms and joined the Japanese forces that sat on the Burmese border of their country; others staged massive demonstrations and strikes in support of independence. Nehru and other leaders of the Congress Party had been imprisoned for refusing to support the war effort, and the large Communist Party was trying to balance its enthusiasm for the defence of the Soviet Union with its opposition to imperialism.

Saville spent much of his leave time at a commune run by the local Communist Party, where he wrote several pamphlets and gave many lectures to English-speaking members of the organisation. At the base in Karachi where he was stationed when he was on duty, Saville formed and led a communist cell of twenty-five. When he was moved to Bombay in the aftermath of the war he became a leader of one of the famous 'Forces parliaments' formed by servicemen who were tired of the army's ossified officer class. After Saville helped get a motion condemning the killing of pro-independence demonstrators passed by the Bombay 'parliament', the institution was forcibly shut down.

When he returned to Britain Saville took a job teaching economic history at the fledgling University of Hull. Saville was to remain at the university for the rest of his working life, refusing offers of employment at more prestigious institutions. Despite the geographic isolation of Hull, Saville became a very active member of the famous 'Communist Party Historians Group' which flourished in the postwar years.

Although other members of the Historians Group like Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill achieved greater public fame, Saville's academic publications earned him a high reputation amongst his peers. Like most of the other members of the Historians' Group, Saville was determined to foster a 'history from below' which was attentive to the experiences of ordinary people as well as Kings and Prime Ministers. Saville's efforts to describe and explain the experience of the forgotten subjects of history led to his role in conceiving and editing the Dictionary of Labour Biography, which has collected tens of thousands of biographies of members of the world's first working class.

Saville continued his political activities in the years after the war. More than half of Hull's residents had lost their homes to Nazi bombs; Saville's Communist Party branch campaigned to get new houses built for them. The beginning of the Cold War in 1947 meant that the Soviet Union was suddenly seen as a foe rather than a friend, and made the job of representing the Communist Party much harder, but Saville remained a loyal member of the organisation until 1956, when the revelations of Stalin's crimes and the invasion of Hungary caused turmoil in Communist Parties around the world.

Saville had never been a blind follower of either the Soviet government or Britain's Communist Party. At the London School of Economics he had been a warm supporter of Harold Laski, the socialist academic who never gave up his membership of the Labour Party. Saville's repeated wartime refusals to accept promotion to the rank of officer had flown in the face of party directives. But Saville understood the crucial role that the Soviet Union had played in defeating Nazism, and he appreciated the assistance that Moscow gave to independence struggles in India and other colonised nations. Up until 1956 he was prepared to keep any criticisms he had of the Soviet Union and Stalinism private.

With the revelations about Stalin's crimes and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, though, Saville was driven into open opposition to the leadership of the party he had served for more than two decades. After the party refused to allow a robust discussion of Stalin's crimes in its press, Saville and a young poet and teacher from Halifax named EP Thompson set up a crudely cyclostyled newsletter called The Reasoner to give voice to the disquiet of rank and file party members. The two dissidents were soon forced out of the party, but they took hundreds with them, and the cheap newsletter blossomed into The New Reasoner, a well-designed, illustrated bimonthly that attracted contributors as diversely talented as Doris Lessing and Isaac Deutscher.

Espousing a mixture of anti-Stalinism and anti-capitalism, The New Reasoner attracted thousands of readers, and became one of the foundations of the chaotic but important movement often called 'the first New Left'. When The New Reasoner fused with another publication to become the New Left Review in 1960, Thompson and Saville felt that they were riding a political wave. New Left Clubs had sprung up around the country, and Saville sat at the head of a New Left Board that counted amongst its assets a multi-storey building in central London that housed a bookshop, a cafe, and a warren of offices used by left-wing activists. The New Left's flagship cause was the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which staged a series of enormous rallies in the second half of the fifties and even briefly succeeded in winning the Labour Party to a policy of Unilateral Nuclear Disarmament. By 1963, though, the crowds were gone, the movement had broken into feuding factions, and Saville found himself ousted from the New Left Board.

Together with the Belgian-born political scientist Ralph Miliband, Saville founded a new, annually published journal called The Socialist Register. Saville and Miliband pursued an ecumenical editorial policy, publishing political analysis from across the left, and they soon won a reputation which extended beyond Britain to North America, Asia, and the Antipodes. The two men would continue to co-edit the journal until Miliband's sudden death in 1994. Today, under the editorship of a group of men and women who share Saville and Miliband's intellectual probity and ecumenical spirit, the Socialist Register remains one of the most influential journals of left-wing thought in the English-speaking world. Saville's partnerships with Thompson on The New Reasoner and with Ralph Miliband on The Socialist Register were the two most important intellectual relationships of his life, and they had profound effects on his academic as well as his political work. Saville and Thompson were in many ways opposites. Thompson was a flamboyant, effortlessly charismatic man with a daringly original mind and a contrarian streak. Saville, by contrast, liked working in groups, had almost limitless supplies of patience, and excelled at synthesising and improving the work of colleagues. As co-editor of The New Reasoner, Saville often received half a dozen long letters from Thompson a day, filled with ideas and opinions. He would reply patiently and perceptively to his brilliant but sometimes impetuous co-editor, separating realistic from utopian proposals and trivial from genuine problems. In his 2003 autobiography Memoirs from the Left, Saville revealed that he was indirectly responsible for the book that made Thompson famous. At the end of the '50s Saville was invited to write a textbook on the history of the English labour movement by Asa Briggs, but he soon decided that he had no time to spare, and recommended that the job be given to Thompson, who at that time had never published an academic paper, let alone a book for an academic publisher. On the weight of Saville's recommendation, Thompson was given the job, but the poet from Halifax soon got preoccupied with his research for the first chapter of the textbook, which was supposed to cover the period from the 1790s to the 1820s in twenty or so pages. When it was finally published as The Making of the English Working Class in
1963, Thompson's 'chapter' ran to eight hundred and forty-eight hundred pages. Asa Briggs never did get his textbook. Saville had much in common with Ralph Miliband, and the two men quickly developed an almost symbiotic relationship, exchanging daily letters about their own academic research as well as their editorial duties, their families, and their gardening.

Saville's work with Thompson and Miliband prepared him well for the immense collaborative project which was the Dictionary of Labour Biography. Between 1972 and 2000, Saville edited the first ten volumes of the work, a task which required him to coordinate the labours of scores of different scholars.

Saville's fiercely egalitarian beliefs are reflected in the vast scope of the Dictionary, which gives space to many obscure grassroots members of trade unions and other workers' organisations, as well as to famous leaders like Keir Hardie and Harry Pollitt. The influence of the Dictionary has been profound, even as far away as the South Pacific. It is hard not to see the marks of Saville’s project on the multi-volume Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, and on more modestly-sized works like Kiwi Companeros, the recently-published, multi-author attempt to rescue New Zealanders who served in the Spanish Civil War from oblivion. Although he was devoted to the cause of the working classes and the politics of the left, Saville never adopted a hostile stance towards people who did not share his background or his beliefs. During his decades at the University of Hull he developed a friendship with a man whose politics could not be more different from those of the New Reasoner and the Socialist Register. Philip Larkin may have been a misanthropic Tory, but he and Saville shared a fondness for Hull, and a desire to preserve the traces of its written history. Together, the grumpy poet-librarian and the socialist academic campaigned for the creation of an archive at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones library, so that the people of city could preserve their letters, diaries and other unpublished writings.

Today, the Brynmor Jones Archive includes tens of thousands of documents, including one of the best collections of unpublished Quaker writing in the world. I visited Hull in 2005, when I was researching my PhD thesis on EP Thompson, and spent many hours poring over the papers that John Saville had left to the Brynmor Jones archive.

During my time at the Brynmor Jones I discovered hundreds of fascinating letters to and from Thompson and Miliband and a dozen unpublished Thompson texts, yet I scarcely scratched the surface of the Saville Papers. It was not only the sheer bulk of the papers that impressed me, but the diversity of interests and activities which they advertised. Many folders of material were dedicated to aspects of the Dictionary of Labour Biography project, and many more were given over to the Socialist Register, but others revealed less well-known interests which Saville had doggedly pursued over the decades. One folder, for instance, was filled with documents relating to the obscure but heroic independence struggle which took place in Portugese Guinea from the 1950s until 1974. Few people on the Western left followed this struggle closely, but Saville had been involved in organising solidarity with the anti-colonial army led by Amilcar Cabral.

Other folders revealed the extent of the encouragement which Saville gave to younger researchers into social history. In the 1930s he had briefly been employed by a company which sold a primitive form of dictaphone, and this experience may well have made him realise the potential of recording devices to capture the memories and opinions of people uncomfortable with expressing themselves in writing. Saville’s papers reveal that he helped to set up the Oral History Society of Britain in the early ‘70s, and that he had a hand in drafting its constitution. If Oral History flourishes today then thanks is due partly to Saville.

Although he was ninety years old and in poor health, John Saville insisted on inviting me into his home when I visited Hull. He was proud of having lived with his wife Constance in the same inner-city terrace house for nearly sixty years, and the books that lined the walls of almost every room seemed to insulate the building from the cold winds that blow off the North Sea into Hull. I took tea with John and Constance in the long narrow yard behind their house, which had once been covered by an extraordinarily productive vegetable garden, but was now thoroughly overgrown. At one point a man in his thirties wandered into the yard to ask if anybody needed more tea. ‘This is my son Ralph’, John explained. ‘You might be able to guess the person we named him after.’ Later that day a grandchild on holiday from Sheffield University dropped by, and made it clear to me that I must be an awfully strange person to want to interrogate her loveable, ordinary old granddad about his life.

I wasn’t to be deterred, of course. With the tactlessness of the obsessive graduate student, I began to bombard Saville with questions about the secret missions into Nazi Germany, about the years in turbulent India, and about the tragicomic feuds of the New Left. It was soon evident, though, that age had dulled the man's memory. Although he could on occasion fetch a fascinating anecdote from the recesses of his mind, much of the past had become recalcitrant. When I asked what he had thought of George Orwell, a man he had occasionally met on his journeys through the British left, Saville immediately responded ‘Orwell – he was a shit! A real shit!’ When I asked him why Orwell was a shit, though, Saville paused, smiled, and replied ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember why he was a shit. I just remember that he was a shit.’

At one point in the afternoon I asked Saville whether he felt frustrated by the way his body and mind were failing. Did he find it hard not pursuing his research and his politics, when he had lived such an industrious life? ‘Not really’, he replied, smiling slightly, and settling back into his deckchair. ‘I did a lot of work when I was able. And I’m happy about that.’

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Research?! Who needs it?

The Broadcasting Standards Authority has found Television New Zealand's Breakfast Show guilty of the unbalanced presentation of an important issue, after hosts Paul Henry and Alson Mau gave the Sensible Sentencing Trust's Garth McVicar freedom to expound his 'right-wing populist' views about crime and justice without any opposition. In the complaint which prompted the BSA's judgement, Roger Brooking pointed out that 'no attempt was made to present the other side of the argument on sentencing and law and order issues.' No academic expert or lawyer was invited onto the Breakfast Show to reply to McVicar's claims that the justice system was 'soft' on criminals, and Henry and Mau openly supported McVicar's hardline stance on sentencing.

Over at the yahoonews forum, there was little sympathy for the BSA's decision. This comment is probably representative:

It never ceases to amaze me how some people (the minority thank goodness) always seem to side with the criminals. No wonder our prisons are overflowing. It is high time that our judiciary get tough with those who break the law "willy nilly".

Comments like this one reflect a misunderstanding of the BSA's decision. The BSA was not passing judgement upon the rightness or wrongness of McVicar's views - it was objecting to the context in which these views were presented. The Breakfast Show's failure to get the opinion of an expert and to balance McVicar's hardline views on sentencing meant that it was in danger of misrepresenting an important and complex issue, and stifling rather than stimulating public debate of this issue. As the example of Fox News should have shown us all by now, the presentation of highly partisan opinions about inflammatory issues by unqualified or underqualified individuals is not good for democracy.

I didn't see McVicar on the Breakfast Show, but back in April I did have the misfortune to witness the appearance on the show by Lloyd Pye, the anti-evolution conspiracy theorist. Pye, who believes that human beings are related to aliens rather apes, was in New Zealand to attend the symposium organised by the circle of anti-semitic conspiracy theorists that publishes Uncensored magazine. Pye rests his bizarre theories on the strangely-shaped 'starchild skull', which he claims belonged to an alien-human hybrid, but which in fact belonged to a deformed native American child.

Henry and Mau gave Pye a friendly welcome, and were deeply impressed by the replica of the starchild skull which Pye showed them. Pye was allowed to present himself as an expert on craniology, and to assert that a series of scientific tests had failed to prove the inauthenticity of the starchild skull. In fact, Pye has no academic qualifications, and a 1999 DNA test at a credentialed Vancouver lab found that the 'starchild' skull was fully human. Pye used his appearance on the Breakfast Show to repeatedly advertise the Uncensored seminar, and to give out the magazine's web address.

Anyone who logged on to the Uncensored site in the days after Pye's appearance would have found articles dismissing the swine flu as a conspiracy by 'occultists' of the 'New World Order'. According to long-time Uncensored contributor Clare Swinney, the numbers associated with the arrival of swine flu in New Zealand have an eerie significance:

On the 28th of April, the TV3 news mentioned there were 66 suspected cases of swine flu and that New Zealand was the 6th country in the world to officially declare it has the virus. The following day news in the US included a reference to: “66 confirmed cases across 6 states.” Time to pay attention? Is the writing on the wall, or was this use of 66 and 6 in relation to what some believe is the elites’ Endgame, a mere coincidence?

While it could be a coincidence, bear in mind that the psychopaths in control like giving a sign before they strike and as bizarre as it may sound, those who are in the process of implementing a One World Government and reducing the world population, are Satanists, and obsessed with the occult.

Older posts on the Uncensored website charge Jews with responsibility for 9/11, and defend the reputation of a 'highly talented British historian' named David Irving.

Why, we might ask, did a publicly-owned television channel with a mass audience give free publicity to a site like Uncensored, and to a man like Lloyd Pye? I don't believe that either Henry or Mau is stupid enough to believe in Pye's absurd ideas. Nor do I believe that either wanted to promote the crazed conspiracy theories that are the stock in trade of Uncensored. I think that Henry and his sidekick are bad journalists, rather than bigots. A five minute google search ought to have shown Mau and Henry the truth about Pye, and about Uncensored, but both of them seem to spend more time on their make up than on research.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Michael Steven speaks out

The intermittently coherent Reading the Maps blogcast series continues, as Muzzlehatch and I interrogate poet and publisher Michael Steven over a few rounds of Emerson's beer, whiskey, and Waikato Draught (you can guess which I bought). In fifty-four minutes we manage to alight on subjects as different as Auckland's recent Readers and Writers Festival, the literary heritage of Dunedin, the exile of Martin Edmond, the fragmentary literary legacy of Bill Manhire's publican father, the politics of the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, the drunken antics of the lead singer of the Headless Chickens, the sad spectacle of David Kilgour collaborating with the execrable Sam Hunt, the problems of translating Latin American poetry into twenty-first century Kiwi English, and the bold new publishing venture called Killmog Press.

You can listen to the interview here, and read my review of Michael Steven's debut collection of poetry here.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

My journey to Antarctica

Over the past few weeks I have spent large amounts of time in the chipped porcelain bathtub at the back of our house, reading Updike novels and old archaeological reports, groping absent-mindedly for a hairy bar sliver of soap with my left foot, and occasionally turning the hotwater tap with my right foot. By the the time I emerge from the bath my skin is thoroughly wrinkled, so that I am tempted to wander down the road to the local movie theatre and try to get a senior citizen's discount on a ticket to Slumdog Millionaire.

I have an excuse of sorts for my decadent behaviour. Every winter a little of the cold air which blows up from the Southern Ocean squeezes through the pores of my scarred left arm, finds its way to the nerve which was damaged in a car accident a decade ago, and creates thousands of small electric shocks which remind me what a marvellously intricate creation the human body is, and just how many bones, nerves, and muscles my body contains. By taking long baths and using a mild opoid called Tramadol (I like to crack the shiny plastic pills my doctor gives me open, and sprinkle them in bottles of Waikato Draught, but Skyler discourages this practice) I am able to keep the nerves in my arm quiescent.

Tramadol has very few side effects, but it does tend to both disrupt and enhance my sleep when I use it in reasonable quantities. I find it easy to fall asleep under the influence of the drug, but equally easy to wake up. In a typical night under the influence of Tramadol, I might wake one or two hundred times, but each time fall asleep again after only a few seconds.

I'm not sure if it's adequate compensation, but I have always had remarkably vivid dreams under the tutelage of Tramadol. For a long time, this phenomenon puzzled me. Tramadol is a distant relation of opium, but it lacks the potency of the drug which gave Thomas de Quincey all sorts of 'waking dreams' one hundred and eighty years ago. Tramadol doesn't enjoy the devoted fan base that opiates like heroin, methadone, and morphine enjoy today: not many people are prepared to hold up dairies or forge cheques on behalf of the drug.

I've decided that the vividness of the dreams which Tramadol creates is an accidental byproduct of its uncanny ability to steer its users in and out of sleep. By regularly waking me, yet not keeping me awake for too long, Tramadol holds me in the early, 'REM' phase of sleep - the phase that is associated with dreaming - for much of the night.

The constant juxtaposition of sleep and wakefulness which I experience under the influence of Tramadol also seems to give me the illusion, at least, of conscious control over aspects of my dreams. I can't write the scripts of the dreams I experience under the influence of Tramadol, but I seem to able to improvise a little, and to stretch certain scenes out for longer than they might have taken.

Over the past few weeks I have been handed a particular dream-script again and again. I've tried to describe the dream in this prose poem:

I am floating to Antarctica in my bathtub. I lean back, and feel the warm water lap against my left armpit, unmatting its hair (before I began this journey I had not bathed for months). I cannot see the glaciers of Cape Adare, or the snub of Erebus, but I know I am headed for Antarctica: the air on my forehead and shoulders has grown steadily colder, and the flocks of skua and petrels have grown thicker and slower (I remember a foghorn, and the anxious excited faces of friends and strangers positioned on the pier). Occasionally an iceberg passes me on its way north to the Indian Ocean, where it will drift for months and slowly disintegrate, like a probe aimed into deep space.

Not wanting to upset the balance of my craft, I grope with one foot for the bar of soap, but it has grown thin and slippery, and my toes only succeed in upturning the rubber duck at the end of the bath. I lean forward and search for the soap with my left hand, causing the front of my craft to dip slightly just as a wave rises to meet it. My feet and ankles are suddenly cool, as a few buckets of the Southern Ocean slop over the bow of the bath. I lean backward slightly, and begin to shovel handfuls of water over both sides of my boat. Tiny puffs of steam rise, as warm water strikes the dark grey swell.

I bail the bathtub for a few minutes, until the water laps below my armpits again, and the craft seems to have stabilised. I lean further back, deciding to forget about the soap and get some sleep, but the water that sits on my chest is cooler now, and salt stings the gash I got the night before my departure (I remember the envelope-sized flags the schoolgirls waved, and the men who flashed cameras and shouted questions, until their charter boat turned back at the Heads).

I am just beginning to enjoy the stinging when something scrapes against the bottom of my bathtub. I sit up quickly, and grasp both sides of my craft to stop it rocking. The bow of the bath bumps against something, and I look up to see a slope of ice and snow rising gently but steadily into the distance, as smooth and clean as porcelain. The scraping grows louder, and I feel something cold enter the soft flesh behind my left knee. The bathwater has turned an odd shade of pink, and I remember the leftover shiraz I mixed with vodka, on the morning of the launch. The grey waves have disappeared, the hull has stopped shaking, and a jagged red-tipped tendril of ice rises out of the disappearing bathwater.

I sit and watch the last of the water gurgle away, leaving my rubber duck beached on the long smudge left by the cake of soap that child threw to me from the pier. Ignoring the pain in my left leg I stand up, step out of the wrecked bath, and begin my trek across Antarctica.

After I read these paragraphs to Skyler, she asked 'But what does it all mean?' She had a point. I feel a certain responsibility for these images, since they have floated like bergs out of the cold waters of my unconscious mind on dozens of occasions over the past few weeks. I'm not sure, though, how to justify the importance that the primitive, reptilian part of my brain evidently gives the ridiculous story of my journey to the white continent in a bathtub. I feel rather slighted, in fact. Why do my adventures have to be so quixotic? Why can't I dream about climbing Mount Everest with Sir Ed Hillary, or flying a spaceship through the rings of Saturn, or riding into Havana on the back of a tank beside Che Guevara?

If I had to guess, I would say that there is a juxtaposition of cosy domesticity and unmanageable wildness which I respond to in the image of the journey to Antarctica in a bathtub. Tomas Transtromer, who still hasn't been sent the flagon of Old Thumper he was awarded after topping of this blog's greatest living writer poll back in 2006, has an early poem which contains these lines:

I went to sleep in my bed
and woke up under the keel.

I went to sleep in my warm bed
and woke up under the keel
at four am, when the bones of the drowned
coldly associate.

These words have fascinated me for a long time, and I quoted them in one of the poems in my first book (thanks Tomas). I live on one of the narrowest points of a narrow island surrounded by a vast and cold ocean. At this time of year storms coalesce and intensify offshore, pounce upon the cosy island, then just as quickly disappear. It's hard to avoid seeing a symbol of the fragility of human existence, and the way that apparent security can turn to danger, in all this - a variation, perhaps, on Bede's famous image of human beings as sparrows flying through out of a stormy night through an opened window into a warm feast-hall, then out again into the storm. Perhaps a similar symbol has been stowed in the absurd story of my journey to Antarctica in a bathtub?

It's not always good, though, to treat an image as a symbol. Apart from Updike and Doug Sutton, my bathtime reading has included Donald Davie, the British nonconformist and literary critic known for his ferocious assaults on Popery and academic poetics. In a defence of Basil Bunting's great poem Briggflatts from the academic 'interpretation industry', Davie lands some big blows:

For Bunting, a bull is a bull, a mason a mason, and so on...Rather than let a bull be a bull, and a mason a mason...[the critics ask]that each of them 'stand in for'...some large abstraction like 'life' or 'death'... [for these critics]the variety Bunting honours is unmanageable, and so they rely instead on the postulate of an impoverished reality: that is to say, on the unargued assumption that nature is simpler and less bounteous than she seems. But of course it is possible to believe, as Bunting seems to do, that Nature (human nature included) is just as inexhaustably various, as copiously inventive for good and ill, as she seems to be. Perhaps, then, my nightly journey to Antarctica needs no elaborate psychological or metaphysical explanation. Perhaps I simply want to explore the white continent. I'll let you know if I get any further inland tonight.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Entering the conversation

Over at the Scoop Review of Books, James King has taken issue with my review of David Lyndon Brown's Skin Hunger:

[Scott's] review is so longwinded I had to have a cup of tea and a wee nap before I came to the end. I’m sorry if my comments come across as hostlie, but frankly I’m sick to death of academics writing deep and meaningless reviews that turn people away from poetry for fear they might not get it. Skin Hunger is too good a book to be turned away from.

I think James takes an interesting stance when he characterises reviewing as a form of journalism, and complains that lengthy or over-'academic' reviews of poetry books can 'turn people away from poetry for fear that they may not get it'.

James seems to see the involved and passionate discussions that can arise around poetry - discussions that can find venues in the introductions to books, in book reviews, in forums like this one, and even (horror of horrors) in academic seminar rooms - as impediments to the actual experience of poetry.

James is implicitly suggesting that there is a radical separation between the sort of experience that a poem gives us and a sort of experience that we have when we engage in intellectual debate. He seems to be suggesting that a poem communicates directly, bypassing the parts of our brain that we engage when we talk about, say, politics, or philosophy, or history. It is wrong, James seems to be saying, for us to read too much in to a poem, by interpreting and discussing it in terms of ideas and events which it does not directly respond to or describe. We should 'get' a poem, not think about it. Literary criticism should be no more than a species of journalism, supplying simple facts about the production and publication of texts.

I have some sympathy with James' stance. I think that academic discourse, in particular, can all too often disfigure the work of poets, by converting their images into ugly pieces of jargon, and turning their insights into 'concepts' to be moved about in irrelevant arguments.

Even outside the academy, there is a tendency to regard poems as more or less elaborate puzzles disguising some sort of 'message' which it is the reader's task to discover and ponder. Once the message has been extracted, the poem - the images, the turns of phrase, the shapes of the lines and the sounds they make - can be cast aside, like the rind of a fruit. I've been involved in several arguments with political activists who believe that the purpose of poetry, and of art in general, is to serve 'the people' by broadcasting didactic arguments to as large an audience as possible. There is no ontological difference, as far as these self-appointed commissars of culture are concerned, between a poem and a poster.

Although I sympathise with some of his points, I think James throws the baby out with the bathwater by implying that the experience of poetry owes nothing to the intellectual discourse surrounding poetry. David Lyndon Brown's Skin Hunger was launched on the same night as Ted Jenner's Writers in Residence, a book for which I wrote an introduction. On the surface, at least, Ted and David are very different writers: where David's poems are laconic and concrete, Ted's are long, self-conscious, and filled with very deliberate allusions to the classical world as well as twenty-first century geopolitics.

Titus asked me to say a few words about Ted's book, and I delivered a boozy, rather rambling talk filled with names like Heraclitus, Rimbaud, Hitler, and Ezra Pound. At one point, a fan of David's interrupted me to ask me when I was going to talk about Ted's poetry, or better still David's poetry. I could see his point.

All I could say, in my defence, was that I didn't know how to talk about Ted without talking about the other people I'd mentioned, and about the traditions in which Ted is immersed. As I see them, Ted's poems are part of a conversation - a frequently frustrated, sometimes angry dialogue, but a conversation nonetheless - with European history and culture: a dialogue about the relation between the ideal and the real, the relation of the individual to the collective, the meaning of democracy and human rights, and the place of the arts in society. We cannot really read Ted's work without entering into this discussion.

David Lyndon Brown might seem like a very different writer, but I think that his poems are also part of a conversation, or a set of conversations, and that it is the critic's job to describe and enter into these converations.

Let's examine 'Law and Order', one of the poems I mentioned in my review of David's book:

Don’t be deceived by the roses in that prim vase.
The nuzzling buds, the sluttish petals unfurling –
anther, stamen, pistil erect,
twitching for a fuck.

Outside in the hot dark, the sap simmers.
The grass shoots up green blades.
Pods burst.
The oleander thrashes at the glass.
Tendrils reach and grasp.

In the Serengeti a predator is tearing something apart.

The formal features of 'Law and Order' - its unrhymed free verse lines of carefully varied lengths, for instance - might not seem remarkable today, but one hundred and twenty years ago they would have made the piece unpublishable. For even the most forward-thinking English-language literary editors of the late nineteenth century, 'Law and Order's lack of a 'regular' rhythm and its wildly varying line lengths would mean that it could not even be considered a poem, let alone a 'successful' poem.

Only after a heroic struggle in the early twentieth century by modernist poets and - perhaps just as importantly - modernist literary critics, did the style which David uses win acceptance. Even today, nearly ninety years after TS Eliot published The Wasteland, there are many people who do not believe that a 'real' poem can be unmetered, or even unrhymed. The style of 'Law and Order' is not something that is 'natural' to David, something that we can 'get' without any knowledge of literary history. When David uses the style, and when we appreciate it, we are affirming a certain definition of poetry, and rejecting another one.

Without falling into the trap of making the poem into a mere vehicle for the delivery of a message, let's examine the argument which 'Law and Order' insinuates. David begins the poem by looking at the roses sitting inside in a 'prim' vase. Humans love to domesticate the rose, either in gardens or in flowerpots or in vases. The flower has often been used to symbolise beauty and refinement, but David rejects these connotations, and the dichotomy between the 'nice' and 'brutish' parts of nature which they both rely upon and reinforce. In a series of images that bring sex together with violence, David suggests a continuity between the apparently-innocent rose in the vase, the wild vegetation outside his window, and the violent predators of the faraway African plains.

Whether or not we find 'Law and Order' convincing, we cannot help reading it in the light of other texts. Blake's famous poem 'Tyger, Tyger burning bright', for instance, raises the question of the character of the natural world, and of the guilt or innocence of a God responsible for the ferocity of this world:

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb, make thee?

Blake left his questions unanswered, but others have not been so reticent. In his long sequence of poems Birds, Beasts and Flowers, DH Lawrence recognised and celebrated the ferocity of which the natural world is capable. Deeply distressed by the First World War, Lawrence was attempting to turn away from the human world, and find refuge in the innocent chaos of nature. For Lawrence, the violence of nature was not comprable to the violence of humans, because it was not the product of reason and malice. In his poem 'Snake', Lawrence reinterprets a creature that has often been made into a symbol of evil:

...he seemed to me like a king,
Like a king in exile, crowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again...

A quarter century later, the great Welsh writer Alun Lewis found in the forested mountains along the border between India and Burma an escape from a human world whcih seemed to have gone mad:

But we who dream beside this jungle pool
prefer the instinctive rightness of the poised
pied kingfisher deep darting for a fish
To all the banal rectitude of states,
The dew-bright diamonds on a viper's back
To the slow poison of a meaning lost
And the vituperations of the just.

Lawrence and Lewis offer variations on one of many possible responses to the problem that Blake's poem posed. Geoffrey Hill, who is often considered Britain's leading living poet, offers a very different vision of the ferocity of nature in his eary poem 'Genesis', where a mysterious, remote God deliberately introduces violence into the world in order to charge it with meaning:

By blood we live, the hot, the cold,
to ravage and redeem the world.
There is no bloodless myth will hold.

David Lyndon Brown's poem can be read as an uncompromising rejection of the gap which Blake perceived between the Lamb and the Tyger. Is it reconcilable with the vision of nature as a refuge from human life that Lawrence and Lewis seem to share? And could David ever endorse Hill's essentially Christian argument that violence and suffering are a necessary part of the universe, or does he recoil from the violence he perceives around him?

I am not suggesting that we need to have read Hill, Lewis and Lawrence, nor even Blake, to appreciate 'Law and Order'. Nor am I suggesting that some of the writers are simply 'correct' and others 'wrong' in their responses to the theme they share. I am offering poems like 'Snake' and 'Genesis' as examples of a complex and long-running conversation in which poets have faced up to a seemingly fundamental feature of human life - the isolation we feel from the natural world and the threat which that world seems to pose to us. David Lyndon Brown's poem acquires its meaning and value within that conversation. Reading and responding to David is not a matter of 'getting' the hermetic meaning of a single human, but of entering into a conversation which involves many writers, living and dead.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Yorkshire forgets

Since I went on National Radio a week and a half ago to talk about anti-semitism and Holocaust denial I've received supportive messages from academics, journalists, bloggers, and members of New Zealand's Jewish community. I've also had one or two rambling e mails from the people I condemned.

Normally I enjoy arguing, even when I'm arguing with people who have viewpoints which diverge sharply from my own, but I get little pleasure out of attempting to engage believers in conspiracy theories about Jews and the Holocaust in debate. Any useful discussion of differences has to be ballasted by a set of shared beliefs, as well as a shared commitment to something resembling rational dialogue. It's hard to find any common ground with people who believe that Auschwitz was a hospital and 9/11was a Jewish plot, and it's even harder to hold them to the standards of rational argument. When you're confronted with the ravings of Kerry Bolton or Martin Doutre, it's easy to wonder whether the game you're playing is worth the candle.

Two people who have no doubt about the importance of challenging Holocaust denial and anti-semitism are Skyler's grandparents, who emigrated to this country a few years ago from Yorkshire, the county where they were born and where they have spent most of their long lives. When we visited them the other day, they were keen to discuss the talk I gave on National Radio. Skyler's grandfather had listened carefully to the talk, and he wanted to tell me how appalled he was that hatred of Jews, denial of the Holocaust, and apologies for Nazism are being promulgated today, nearly six and a half decades after the end of World War Two.

Skyler's grandparents have very personal reasons for hating fascism: for several years they lived in daily danger of death from Hitler's Luftwaffe. Skyler's grandfather grew up near the Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley, and went down the pit as a teenager in the thirties. Because a steady supply of coal was so important to the war effort, he was never allowed to join the army. Instead, he worked long shifts down the mines, and trained with the Home Guard in his spare time.

For her part, Skyler's grandmother was a member of the WAAF based near the mouth of the river Humber, on the outskirts of the city of Hull. As a large and important port, and the base for the ships which took supplies over the Arctic Sea to the Soviet Union, Hull naturally attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe. In addition to the inevitable organised raids, Hull received near-constant indiscriminate batterings from the Germans. Because of its size, its distinctive shape, and its location on the northeast coast of England, the mouth of the Humber was used as a 'marker' by Luftwaffe pilots looking to find their way to and from their targets. Planes leaving Britain would fly down the Humber and drop all of their left-over bombs on Hull, rather than take them back to Germany. More than half of Hull's population of 320,000was made homeless by bombs.

At night, Skyler's Grandmother's group would hoist massive barrage balloons over the river, in an attempt to obstruct and divert the flight of the German bombers that streamed across the North Sea. She remembers clutching one of the frosty ropes that anchored the balloons to the ground, and watching dozens of bombers swooping over the blazing city a few miles up the Humber. When she got leave from her duties, she would visit Hull, hoping to do some shopping, or to eat a meal. As often as not, the shop or pub she had intended visit had been turned into a smoking ruin.

Skyler's grandparents remember the cruelty of the Nazi bombing raids, and they also remember the shock that mingled with relief when the Nazi regime collapsed, and the death camps the regime had maintained were opened. It is very hard for them to understand why anyone would want to apologise for the crimes of Nazism today. When we visited on Sunday night, Skyler's grandfather talked at length about the forgetfulness of generations which lacked his first-hand experience of the crimes of fascism. He pointed out that many young Britons today know almost nothing about Hitler, about the Second World War, and about the fate of Europe's Jews. This sort of historical amnesia makes the job of those who want to resurrect fascism easier.

At the same time that Skyler and I were talking to her grandparents about Nazism and forgetfulness, the voters of Yorkshire were electing a neo-Nazi to the European parliament. Taking advantage of the unpopularity of Britain's Labour government and fears about immigration, the whites-only British National Party's Andrew Brons won ten percent of the vote in the Yorkshire region, which under the proportional representation system was enough to make him a Member of the European Parliament. Brons did well in Hull, and in Skyler's grandmother's hometown of Barnsley he won nearly a fifth of the votes. Brons' political activism stretches back to the 1960s, when he was a member of the British National Socialist Movement, an organisation founded on Hitler's birthday. Brons went on to become a leading member of the National Front, a direct ancestor of the British National Party. In 1981 he led a campaign against Britian's Afro-Carribean community, using the slogan 'If they're black, send them back'. In 1984, he was fined fifty pounds for shouting racist insults at a Malaysian-born policeman in Leeds. The cop had approached Brons after hearing him shout 'Death to Jews!' and 'White Power!'

Skyler's grandparents will not be the only ones dismayed by the election of Andrew Brons. Far from being a bastion of bigotry, Yorkshire has traditionally been one of the most outward-looking, forward-thinking parts of Britain. The great English historian EP Thompson moved to the county after World War Two, because he was inspired by its rich history of labour activism and agitation for democratic rights.

In his classic book The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson showed how the artisans, rural labourers, and factory workers of Yorkshire defied the British government's attempts to curb their civil rights during the Napoleonic Wars, and rose up for better working conditions and the right to vote in the decades after the wars.

During the nineteenth century, Hull was one of the most important ports in Europe, a point of contact between the eastern and western parts of the continent. Waves of immigrants from central and eastern Europe and Scandinavia swept through the city. Hull developed a strong labour movement with an internationalist outlook.

When I visited Hull in 2005 to explore some of the unpublished writings of EP Thompson, I had the honour of meeting John Saville, who was an old friend of Thompson and a long-time resident of the city. In the 1930s Saville had worked as an agent for the anti-fascist resistance in Germany, smuggling messages into and out of the country disguised as a travelling salesman. During World War Two he was stationed in India, where he supported Nehru's movement for independence and helped establish a grassroots 'soldiers' parliament'. After the war Saville was part of a network of activists in Hull's unions who campaigned against European colonial rule in places like Hungary and Guinea-Bissau, and against the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. When I chatted with him in his overgrown allotment in 2005, Saville was bent with age and forgetful of many of the details of his life, but still proud of the role that he and his friends in Hull had played in so many progressive causes.

Saville now suffers from late-stage Alzheimers disease; he neither remembers the past nor notices the news. At least, then, he won't be aware that a neo-Nazi now represents his beloved hometown in the European parliament. Younger residents of Hull and the rest of Yorkshire lack Saville's excuse for their forgetfulness of history.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Twenty of the best; or, a bibliography for recovering pseudo-scholars

In recent months, especially, this blog has spent a dispiriting amount of space on the fanciful and malicious claims about New Zealand history advanced by pseudo-scholars like Gavin Menzies, Martin Doutre, Kerry Bolton, and Rosanne Hawarden. Whether they tout themselves as 'alternative researchers', 'astroarchaeologists', or - most laughable of all - 'independent historians', the pseudo-scholars have one thing in common: a contempt for the rigorous methods and peer-reviewed body of literature developed by generations of serious researchers into New Zealand society and history. It would be timely, I think, to celebrate this heritage of genuine scholarship, by compiling a list - or a set of lists - of some of the classic works produced by the human sciences in New Zealand.

The following list of twenty classic books is obviously subjective - it speaks of my own passions and research interests, as much as anything else - and it is premised on a definition of 'human sciences' broad and fuzzy enough to include literary criticism as well as fields like archaeology and linguistics, which are closer in their methodologies to the natural sciences. Post your criticisms and amendments in the comments box.

Perhaps this list could serve as a bibliography for any recovering pseudo-scholars reading this blog. I'm sure that nobody who reads Judith Binney or HD Skinner will ever want to go back to the ravings of Martin Doutre or Kerry Bolton.

Judith Binney, Redemption Songs: a life of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki , Auckland University Press, 1995.

The big one. Decades in the making, Binney's biography of the nineteenth century prophet, guerrilla leader, church founder, and songwriter is an epic in every sense of the word. Binney's narrative manages to draw on an astonishing array of written and oral sources, and to do justice to the frequent contradictions between these sources, without ever being anything less than compelling. The chapter explaining the book's methodology is of enormous value to any scholar concerned to honour both oral tradition and historical fact. By treating the myriad local traditions about Te Kooti - stories that describe his ability to travel vast distances in a moment, or ride his white horse up a cliff to escape capture, or make volcanoes erupt - as expressions of the relationships of different groups of people to the man, expressions which must be sensitively interpreted, rather than either taken literally or dismissed out of hand, Binney steers a path between the rocks of Eurocentrism and cultural relativism.

HD Skinner, The Morioris of the Chatham Islands, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1923.

HD Skinner was the founder of modern archaeology in New Zealand, and this book helped establish his reputation. He'd been desperate to see the Chathams for years, but war service and then petty bureaucratic regulations thwarted him, until he was driven to tuck some mince pies into his overcoat and stow away on a boat leaving Lyttleton for the islands. Skinner eventually returned to the Chathams with a team of students, and his thoroughgoing examination of skeletal evidence, tree and rock carvings, artefacts, and oral tradition demolished the pernicious myth that the Moriori were a Melanesian people who had been driven from the North and South Islands by the ancestors of the Maori. If only the myth had died as quickly amongst the general public as it did amongst scholars. David Bedggood, Rich and Poor in New Zealand: a critique of class, politics, and ideology, Allen and Unwin, 1980.

It may be hard to imagine now, but thirty years ago 'class' was a forbidden word for many scholars of New Zealand society. Along with an important anthology of writing on Social Class in New Zealand edited by David Pitt, Bedggood's Rich and Poor in New Zealand helped make the dirty word an acceptable part of the discourse of social scientists. Keith Sinclair gave both books very bad reviews, denying that classes existed in New Zealand and protesting that Bedggood had not bothered to do any research in an archive. Bedggood has never been much of a man for archives: he is interested in broad social trends, and in what Marx called the 'laws of motion of capital', rather than in historical detail. Rich and Poor in New Zealand is a sweeping, acerbic history of this country which emphasises the brutality of colonisation, the reality of yawning gaps in income and opportunity between different classes, and the persistence of industrial conflict. Thirty years after it was written, the book still figures on reading lists given to undergradute sociology students at New Zealand universities.

Geoff Park, Uruora: the Groves of Life , Victoria University Press, 1995.

Geoff Park's book is the record of a series of journeys in search of New Zealand's mostly-vanished lowland forests. As he crosses sodden dairy farms, kayaks down weed-infested drainage ditches, and inspects crumbling middens, Park meditates on the ways in which European colonists sought to impose a 'Cartesian' order of straight lines and clearly demarcated 'natural' and 'inhabited' zones on the landscape they found in New Zealand. Park is a superb prose stylist, and his chapters are rich in references to philosophy, archaeology, and history, as well as botany. When he does discover surviving stretches of lowland forest in areas like Mokau and the northern West Coast, Park's writing becomes rhapsodic, in the best sense of the word.

Park is a conservationist, but he is critical of the tendency of many environmentalists to want to 'quarantine' supposedly 'virgin' parts of nature in 'scenic reserves'. He rightly points out that the whole notion of 'virgin nature' is a corollary of the industrial revolution, which divided humans from the natural world in unprecedented ways. Park laments the way in which the establishment of scenic reserves often led in the early twentieth century to the displacement of Maori, who had learned to live inside and with 'virgin nature' in a way which conservationists did not understand.

Miles Fairburn, Nearly Out of Heart and Hope: the puzzle of a colonial labourer's diary, Auckland University Press, 1995.

Fairburn has a knack for combining microhistorical detail with historiographical speculation, so it is not surprising that his close reading of the diary of an impoverished labourer who wandered the backblocks of the lower North Island in the early twentieth century becomes an investigation into the causes of working class conservatism. Why did a man who suffered continually from the shortcomings of capitalism retain his belief in the hoary maxims of 'hard work and self-reliance', instead of identifying with the militant socialism that was a force in New Zealand in the first decades of the twentieth century? After an extraordinarily sensitive reading of his source material, Fairburn offers a convincing answer.

Judith Binney, The Legacy of Guilt, Auckland University Press, 1968.

Binney's first book does not have the narrative smoothness or the scope of Redemption Songs, but it is nevertheless an insightful treatment of the much-mythologised story of Thomas Kendall, the early missionary who 'went native' after becoming engrossed in the study of the Maori language and religion.

Dick Scott, Would a Good Man Die? Niue, New Zealand, and the late Mr Larsen. Southern Cross Books, 1993.

Dick Scott may be better known for his polemical histories of Parihaka and the 1951 lockout, but his study of the venal and brutal colonial regime that a police officer from a provincial New Zealand town established in mid-century Niue also packs a punch.

Len Richardson, Coal, Class and Community: the united mineworkers of New Zealand, 1880-1960. Auckland University Press, 1995.

Richardson wears his heart on his sleeve, but this study of one of New Zealand's most militant unions is much more than a celebration of battles won and a lament for battles lost. Richardson is attentive to cultural as well as political history, and his book includes fascinating details of miners' leisure time activities, as well as the time they spent down the pit and on the picket line. Today's postgraduate students should be made to read Richardson's account of how many West Coast miners would go straight from a ten-hour shift down the pit to an unheated 'study hut' where volumes of Marx waited.

Ian Richards, To Bed at Noon: the life and art of Maurice Duggan, Auckland University Press, 1997.

In Richards' sure hands, the truncated life of a minor New Zealand writer becomes a rich picture of Auckland in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Richards shows us the tight, working class Catholic community in which Duggan grew up, and then the even tighter Bohemian North Shore community which he entered after suffering a freak misfortune, before following his hero into Auckland's corporate world and its mental hospitals. Richards is currently living in Japan, but he is still turning out superb pieces of literary history, as this essay on Kendrick Smithyman's fear of flying shows. Nga Patai: racism and ethnic relations in Aotearoa/New Zealand, various, ed. Paul Spoonley, David Pearson, Cluny Macpherson, Dunmore Press, 1996.

If Nga Patai were more widely read our race relations would be in better shape. Almost every entry in this anthology is worth reading, but Evan Poata Smith's argument that Maori nationalism will become a political dead end if it does not take notice of class as well as ethnicity is particularly pertinent today.

Paul Spoonley, The Politics of Nostalgia, Dunmore Press, 1987

I'm obliged to mention this book, because I cited it religiously in the talk I gave on New Zealand's anti-semites for National Radio the other day. Spoonley's study of the strange flora and fauna of the extreme right - what other part of the political spectrum could give its organisations names like Zenith Applied Philosophy and the Church of Odin? - is distinguished by the connections it makes between ideology and class. Spoonley's discussion of the rural petty bourgeois basis of paranoid anti-semitic groups like the League of Rights is particularly impressive.

PW Hohepa, A Maori Community in Northland, Reed, 1970.

Hohepa's book is one of the first detailed anthropological studies of a Maori community conducted by a member of that community. Using his professional skills and deep 'inside' knowledge, Hohepa introduces us to a group of people who have inhabited a lush but isolated valley in the upper Hokianga for many hundreds of years, and who have in that time developed their own intricately beautiful culture.

Roger Neich, Painted Histories: early Maori figurative painting, Auckland University Press, 1993.

Neich's massive and sumptuous book honours a series of paintings that were for a long time considered grotesque symptoms of cultural decline. Often intricate and brightly-coloured, the paintings which adorn the meeting houses associated with Te Kooti's Ringatu movement fuse elements of the symbolic, stylised art of 'classical' Maori society with the realistic, sometimes jocular artforms of nineteenth century British culture. The result might almost be called New Zealand's first bicultural art. No wonder the Victorians were upset.

Christina Jefferson, Dendroglyphs of the Chatham Islands: Moriori designs on karaka trees, Polynesian Society, 1956.

Jefferson did not get a very friendly welcome when she appeared on the Chathams shortly after World War Two and began to ask questions about the carvings Moriori had made on trees. Refusing to believe locals' claims that the carvings had all but disppeared, and would not have been worth studying anyway, Jefferson hopped on a sturdy horse and spent months travelling Chatham and Pitt Islands, camping amidst the groves of karaka she searched for dendroglyphs. The hundreds of charcoal drawings of carvings which Jefferson published in 1956 have aesthetic as well as anthropological value. Jefferson's role in preserving the heritage of the Chathams has been recognised by subsequent scholars, yet she never published again.

James Belich, The Victorian Interpretation of Racial Conflict, Queens University Press, 1986.

Belich would later gain acclaim for his detailed studies of half-forgotten primary material relating to New Zealand's military history, but in this early piece of research he focuses on reinterpreting well-known facts about the wars between Maori and Pakeha. In a series of exemplary arguments, he shows that Victorian commentators were prevented from recognising the military achievements of Maori by notions of racial superiority. When they pondered the very slow advance of General Cameron's British army into the Waikato Kingdom in 1863, for example, they tended to blame Cameron for being over-cautious or incompetent, instead of recognising that well-organised attacks by Maori guerrilla forces to the north of the Waikato were seriously compromising British supply lines.

The Origins of the first New Zealanders, various, ed. Doug Sutton, Auckland University Press, 1994.

A triumph of interdisciplinary cooperation, this collection brings together anthropologists, historians, linguists, and boatbuilders to suggest answers to an old question. The most remarkable contribution comes from linguist Ray Harlow, whose analyses of the differences between a variety of Maori dialects leads him to suggest that New Zealand was settled by several distinct groups of Polynesians. Harlow has since extended his research by analysing the speech of various members of the Maori battalion who recorded greetings to their whanau while they were stationed in North Africa in World War Two. Because the differences between the dialects of iwi were more pronounced in the 1940s, Harlow hopes these crackly recordings from the deserts of Libya and Egypt can provide new insights into the prehistory of Aotearoa.

Kai Jensen, Whole Men: the masculine tradition in New Zealand literature, Auckland University Press, 1996.

In the fascinating introduction to this neglected book, Jensen explains that he became a radical feminist in the 1980s, and enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Auckland because he wanted to expose the patriachal nature of traditional New Zealand literature. During the seven years it took him to finish his thesis, though, Jensen lost some of his polemical zeal, as he became immersed in the postmodern theories of Derrida and Foucault that were washing through the university's English department. The result of Jensen's labours is a book which is sensitive to the 'gendered' nature of much of the writing of Kiwi literary legends like Dennis Glover and Allen Curnow, yet generously understanding of the historical and social situations which determined what those writers produced. Jensen's smooth prose and aversion to unnecessary jargon should be examples to all our literary scholars.

James McNeish, The Mask of Sanity: the Bain Murders, David Ling Publishing, 1997.

Some of you will no doubt baulk at the inclusion of this book in my list, but I think that its combination of detailed reporting, historical reconstruction, and pyschological portraiture distinguish it from the sensationalism and special pleading that have marked most accounts of the Bain saga. I hope that the long-suffering jurors in Christchurch have been reading McNeish's book on the sly.

Harry Orsman, Reed Dictionary of New Zealand English, Reed, 2001.

I've always thought that Orsman's marvellous, meticulously-assembled inventory of 'New Zild' was really a cryptic epic poem of the sort that Richard Taylor or Louis Zukofsky might produce. John Reynolds evidently agrees with me that Orsman's book is the stuff of art - in a massive work that almost won last year's Walters Prize, he scattered seven thousand entries from the dictionary across the walls of two levels of Auckland's New Gallery. Danny Keenan, Wars Without End, Penguin, 2009.

The anonymous smart-alec commenter who was giving me grief last week for talking of New Zealand's nineteenth-century 'Land Wars' ought to consult Maori historian Danny Keenan's fine new book. In his first chapter, Keenan casts his eye over the bewildering variety of names the conflicts between Maori and Pakeha have been given, uncovers the political motivations behind these names, and settles for Land Wars, on the grounds that all the diverse causes of the conflicts were concentrated in the issue of land ownership. It's a very good start to a very good book.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Tamil Sri Lanka: a report from the field

The recent offensive by the Sri Lankan army against the rebel Tamil Tigers group prompted massive protests by Tamil communities around the world, and allegations that the Sri Lankans were attacking civilian refugees as well as rebel fighters. In recent weeks Western aid agencies and journalists have confirmed that large numbers of civilians died at the hands of the Sri Lankan army. Although the fighting is over in Sri Lanka, hundreds of thousands of Tamils are being herded at gunpoint into poorly-equipped internment camps, where the Sri Lankan government wants to keep them for at least a year. The Red Cross and other aid agencies have been refused access to the camps.

Recent events in Sri Lanka are just the latest chapter in a long and tragic story. In a talk at the University of Auckland next Thursday, anthropologist Margaret Trawick will discuss the history of oppression that Sri Lanka's Tamil minority has suffered, and explain why she believes that this oppression amounts to a 'slow genocide'. Trawick has worked as an anthropologist amongst Sri Lanka's Tamils, and has witnessed firsthand the efforts of the Sri Lankan government to destroy their culture, language, and physical heritage.

Trawick's lecture, which will be followed by question and answer and discussion sessions, is the first in a series of events being organised by the Justice for Tamils Student Association to raise Kiwi awareness of the ongoing tragedy in Sri Lanka.