Thursday, December 31, 2009

2010: the aerial route

Skyler and I will be doing our best to draw out the end of 2009 by flying toward the International Dateline tonight, on our way to the island kingdom of Tonga. Barring pilot error or mechanical failure, we should be in mid-heaven when midnight tolls, which was why our ticket was relatively cheap. For some reason that escapes me, Kiwis are happy to see in the New Year brawling with cops at Pauanui, or vomiting into a Lambton Quay gutter, but don't like to celebrate the event in an airplane seat.

I am, I must admit, a little disappointed that we'll be flying through the dark, because it'll mean missing out on the chance to see the Minerva Reef, the coral outcrops that form a huge shallow lagoon without an island in the empty seas south of Tonga. I became fascinated by the Minerva Reef as a child, after I read that a group of Americans steered a barge through a gap in the coral, dumped enough sand on the floor of the lagoon to form an island, and proclaimed the establishment of the Republic of Minerva. The nation-founders were libertarians, and the Republic of Minerva was going to be a tax-free, pro-business paradise - a model to a 1970s world mired in late Keynesian macroeconomics and stagflation. Unfortunately, the King of Tonga soon got wind of the new government on his doorstep, and sent the might of his navy down to annex the desert island of Minerva, which was in any case quickly dissolving into the warm shallow lagoon water. Today, the Minerva Reef is the preserve of adventurous yachties, who follow the libertarians' route through the coral wall and anchor for days on end in the lagoon, enjoying the tropical sunsets and collecting souvenirs from ancient shipwrecks.

As a boy, I wanted for while to emulate the founding of the Republic of Minerva by building an island in one of the muddy Manukau Harbour inlets that extended close to our family farm. I didn't subscribe to libertarianism, nor even know what it was, but I liked the idea of naming a country and getting to design a national flag.

Minerva Reef isn't the only nation-founding scheme in the history of the modern Pacific - back in the thirties the administrator and ethnologist Harry Maude, whose remarkable gift to the Auckland War Memorial Museum I discussed in this talk and post, led a group of I-Kiribati in establishing the last new colony of the British Empire on the uninhabited Phoenix Islands in the extreme northeast of Micronesia.

Maude, who seems to have enjoyed a remarkable degree of autonomy from his supposed bosses in the Colonial Office, decided that the colony of the Gilbert Islands was getting overcrowded, and that the Yanks might be tempted to grab the Phoenix Island group if the Union Jack wasn't planted there. The isolation and barreness of the Phoenix group and the outbreak of World War Two meant that Maude's colony lasted a mere few years.

I may be missing out on Minerva Reef, but I'll be blogging from the firmer ground of the Kingdom of Tonga over the next week (I made a start on the country during an eventful one-hour stopover in August). There's even a Smithyman connection to explore.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Confessions of a blasphemer

The controversy caused by the Christmas billboard erected outside Auckland's St Matthews church groans on, with the Otago Daily Times editorialising strongly against the middle-aged and elderly Christian jihadists who took a spraycan and a knife to the image of Mary and Joseph in the sack.

The bedtime billboard controversy was only a glimmer in the eye of St Matthews' liberal pastor Glyn Cardy when Michael Arnold e mailed me a month ago from a small Cham Muslim town outside Hanoi and asked me to send him a last-minute contribution to brief, the long-running Kiwi literary journal he has edited expertly for the past year. Michael's performance at the helm of brief has won the journal a wave of new subscribers, as well as a much-appreciated cash injection from Creative New Zealand, but he has had the difficult task of stitching together his latest issue from a series of stuffy internet cafes in Indochina, where he has been preparing to get married to his long-time Chinese-Vietnam-Cambodian partner in a huge and complicated ceremony that will finally begin on New Years Eve.

Michael told me that he needed a text or two to fill a couple of leaky spots at the back of brief #38, so I fired off a poem I had recently written. Admiral Arnold runs a tight editorial ship, so I'm not sure if my piece has managed to evade his reject bin. In the light of the violence and invective that the very mildly blasphemous billboard outside St Matthews has attracted, I almost feel a little trepidation about the possibility of the poem's publication. I'll post it here along with a little self-defence, so that the fundamentalist vandals can be forewarned and, perhaps, disarmed:

Churchgoing (for Nathan and Amber)

The cross was cut from driftwood
dropped on Island Bay:
some pohutakawa that leaned too far
off its cliff, or a kopi trunk washed
northwest from the Chathams.
You sit for a few minutes,
squinting in the rush hour light
a low window barely filters.

You are imagining the resurrection
of the tree - the smooth
tumourous swellings, and the twigs extending
like antennae. The blossom foam,
and viscous leaves.
Outside, beyond the pamphlet rack
and the poured concrete walls,
a diplomatic flotilla floats up the street,
disappears into Mount Victoria.

Christ arrived sometime
after supper. He pitched his tent in kanuka
on the other side of the broken-legged fence
that kept goats out of the churchyard
and off the footy field.
In the morning He walked past the hall
then the chapel, and the infant lemon tree,
pausing to lay hands
on Josh's pregnant tabby.

Christ joined the work bee beside the creek,
swinging a machete someone had saved.
Gorse and thistle were laid low.
At the noon He joined the rest of the boys
beside the chilly bin in the shade.
He rolled a smoke with one hand
and opened his beer with the other.

Nobody heard the sermon
except Josh, who was hanging around the chapel,
and a couple of kids who wandered in.
When it was over He stepped outside
and ascended. The little lemon tree tittered in the wind.

The poem is dedicated to my old friend Nathan Parry, the Presbyterian Minister of Island Bay, and his wife Amber. Ever since we were sixth formers at Rosehill College in Papakura, Nathan and I have conducted intermittent and inconclusive arguments about God, the universe, and the meaning or meaninglessness of life. Over the years our debates have become steadily less intemperate, as Nathan's early fundamentalism has evolved into a tough-minded liberalism, and my atheism has become more muted, in its expression if not its substance.

Unlike some of my more fiercely atheistic friends, I never had religion shoved down my throat as a child. I hardly visited a church until my late twenties. The spectacle of religious ceremony fills me not with the indignation that 'New Atheists' like Richard Dawkins express so eloquently, but with a sort of sad admiration. I admire the ability of believers to defy the vast indifference of the universe that surrounds them, as well as the oblivion that awaits them; I feel sad, sometimes, at the confidence that they carry to their churches and temples, and into their graves.

I wrote a different poem for Nathan and Amber in 2006, after I had the honour of being a groomsman at their wedding in the troubled little town of Whanganui. By the time I'd attended a couple of rehearsals and stumbled through the ceremony my head was full of hymns, chants, devotional poems, and sermons. The faith of the crowd that had turned out to celebrate Nathan and Amber's union seemed vast and invincible and self-evidently justified, and my lonely atheism seemed downright reckless.

The day afer the wedding I wandered up the road to the Whanganui district museum, and found myself in a dim low-roofed corridor called the nineteenth century. Behind the thick dirty glass on one side of the corridor, a wax priest was stepping out of a polystyrene waka tiwai, onto the muddy shore of the Whanganui River at the Catholic settlement of Jerusalem. In the light of a bare flickering bulb the priest's cheeks and chin seemed to glisten with sweat, or with tears, but what held my attention were his robes. Sown, according to the handmade caption pasted to the glass, in the grubby fortress town at the mouth of the Whanganui, they were decorated with a series of motifs that were ambiguously sinuous enough to suggest both the stylised angels and serpents of early Celtic Christian iconography and the endlessly unfurling spirals of classical Maori art.

The cloaked priest at Whanganui reminded me of a carving of the Virgin Mary in the Maori Court of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. When I worked at the museum I was once confronted by a fundamentalist Christian visitor, who wanted to complain about an exhibition on the life and work of the 'Satanic' Charles Darwin. I pretended to placate her by taking her to visit the Maori Madonna; as I had expected, her annoyance turned to outrage at the sight of the tattooed face and flat nose and staunchly pious brow the carver had given to a pillar of the Christian faith. 'That's sacrilegious', my pious guest told me. 'It shouldn't be on display'. The stern Frenchmen who created the Catholic Church of Aotearoa agreed: although the carving was produced in the 1840s, it was not displayed for many decades, and only became famous when it was blessed by Pope John Paul when he visited New Zealand in the eighties.

Like the carving of Mary, the cloaked priest at the Whanganui museum seemed to me to bring together two quite different views of reality. The priest's incomprehensible languages and otherworldly mission must have made him a strange figure indeed in the Upper Whanganui of the ninteenth century, but his garment seemed, like Mary's tattooed face, to evoke the very landscape and culture he was determined to alter.

In 'Whanganui 1873', the prose poem for Nathan and Amber which was published in my 2007 book To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps, I used a couple of incidents common on the Upper Whanganui River in the nineteenth century to try to dramatise the conflict I perceived between the pagan worldliness of traditional Maori culture and the world-denying abstractions of some forms of Christianity:

Whanganui 1873

Reverend Lindauer is ready to begin the service: Panoho and Wiremu lift the vestments onto his hunched shoulders. The cloth is bright green, the colour of sunlight strained through the surface of the river. The boy drowned around a blind bend, behind the lamprey weir, where the undercurrent starts to tire, to turn back, to head for the near bank. Now the river is tapu. Green scum mantles the still water behind the weir.

O Lord, who art in. His voice is hoarse, like the river after rain. He coughs, begins again: O Lord, who art in Heaven. Heaven was a high place, as high as the nimblest boy could carry the bag of bones. O Lord, who art in Heaven. Heaven is a hole filled with dirt and worms. O Lord, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Heaven is green scum mantling the still water behind the weir.

Like the earlier poem I inflicted on the Reverend Parry, 'Churchgoing' seems to dwell upon the gap between the teeming, temporary details of the indifferent world we inhabit and the otherworldly message of the Christian faith. How could the gap between the world and the Word be leapt, in either the pagan nineteenth or the sacrilegious twenty-first centuries? How could an entity as abstract as the Christian God instantiate itself in flesh and blood and mucus and return to an earth like ours? If He did somehow manage to instantiate Himself successfully into this world, would anyone notice his otherworldiness? I may be a middle-class Pakeha living in the twenty-first century, but I feel a sort of empathy with the many nineteenth century Maori who were bewildered by the missionaries' message, and who either rejected it or adapted it to their worldview by constructing their own intricately heteredox faiths.

The church described in the opening stanzas of the poem is based on Wellington's St Joseph's, a building Nathan admires for its modernist design and materials, and on the similarly brutalist Holy Family Catholic church in Te Atatu. St Joseph's has poured concrete walls and a rusted steel cross; Holy Family has poured concrete walls and a cross made from driftwood. The title of my piece is a not-very-subtle allusion to Philip Larkin's famous poem about the 'awkward reverence' he felt, as an atheist obsessed with history and tradition, for holy places. Larkin was a grumpy old racist with terrible taste in jazz and painting, but he did get it right sometimes:

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognized, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

If Michael Arnold does include my poem in the next issue of brief, I hope the crusaders who took to the St Matthews billboard won't hold a public burning of our little literary journal. Even if they are expressed clumsily, to small or hostile audiences, the doubts of artists and writers are as worthy of tolerance as the certainties of fundamentalists.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Broadcasting Standards Authority's Christmas gift to anti-semites

In many parts of the West, the racist and anti-semitic far right is using a new tactic to try to gain a larger audience and more recruits. Aware of the repugnance that symbols like the swastika and ideas like Nazism still create amongst ordinary people, the far right is attempting to make itself respectable. Swastikas are being discarded, leather jackets are being swapped for suits, and the old Nazi vocabulary is being exchanged for innocent-sounding euphemisms. In countries like Britain and Belgium, the new strategy has had some success, as former streetfighting thugs have been elected to local councils and to the European parliament.

One local Nazi who has been trying to repackage himself in recent years is Kerry Bolton. Bolton joined the New Zealand Nazi Party as a fourteen year-old in 1975, and has since belonged to a succession of groups with explicitly racist and anti-semitic ideologies. In 1981 he founded a group called New Force, which argued in favour of apartheid at the time of the Springbok tour to New Zealand, and which issued leaflets warning against Polynesian immigration and the 'bastardisation of white New Zealand'. In 1997 Bolton was the founder of the short-lived New Zealand Fascist Union, and in 2004 he became the National Secretary of the National Front, an organisation that became notorious for its members' violent attacks on Somali immigrants in Wellington.

Bolton has complemented his political activism with a stream of rambling, often self-published books and articles on subjects like the Holocaust, Jewish conspiracies, and the supposed settlement of New Zealand in ancient times by a race of white warriors. In recent years Bolton has attempted to deny much of his political history, and to repackage some of his most unpleasant views. Bolton was not happy, then, at an interview I gave to Chris Laidlaw on Radio New Zealand earlier this year during which I discussed anti-semitism and Holocaust denial in New Zealand. During my chat with Laidlaw I cited Bolton as one of New Zealand's leading Holocaust deniers, observed that he has had connections with Holocaust deniers overseas, and suggested that he has had a thoroughly bad influence on the young people who make up the majority of the membership of neo-Nazi groups like the National Front.

Bolton complained about my comments to the Broadcasting Standards Authority, telling them that he is neither a Holocaust denier nor a neo-Nazi. Given the weight of evidence for Bolton's views, and the notoreity he enjoys as New Zealand's longest-serving neo-Nazi, I expected the Broadcasting Standards Authority to treat his complaint with the contempt it deserved.

Instead, the BSA has just issued a bizarre, convoluted judgement which refuses to take a position on whether or not Bolton is a Holocaust denier, and which finds that my comments about his beliefs were unfair, and should have been censored by Radio New Zealand. Bolton and the international Holocaust denial community will be delighted by their unexpected Christmas present.

The BSA's report complains that the evidence I offered of Bolton's Holocaust denial is 'scant', and notes that a number of the webpages where Bolton has published anti-semitic and Holocaust-denying material over the years have disappeared. The BSA observes that at the website of the Adelaide Institute, the notorious Holocaust-denying group whose leader Frederick Toben was sent to prison this year for hate crimes, the many pages which once hosted pieces by Bolton are now no more than dead links.

It doesn't appear to have occurred to the BSA that the sudden disappearance of much, though not all, of Bolton's writing about the Holocaust from the internet might have been organised by the man himself, so that he might look better in the eyes of the people investigating his complaint.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority is made up of journalists, and one might have expected them to be capable of doing a little empirical investigation, and discovering the many Holocaust-denying texts which Bolton has been unable to bury. But since the BSA's members haven't been able to do the work for themselves, and since they are quite likely to find their judgement appealed by Radio New Zealand, I want to suggest some additions to their Christmas holiday reading lists.

It may not be much fun compared to the new Dan Brown tome, but The Holocaust Myth: a Sceptical Inquiry might reveal to the members of the Broadcasting Standards Authority Kerry Bolton's real opinion of the most terrible event of the twentieth century. In The Holocaust Myth, which he self-published sometime in the '80s, and which can still be purchased on the website of his chums in the American Nazi Party, Bolton disregards all of the SS documents, all of the eyewitness testimonies of survivors, and all of the mass graves and gas chambers, and insists that the Holocaust was a fantasy created by enemies of Hitler and the white race.

Bolton wrote The Holocaust Myth some time ago, and members of the BSA might wonder whether it was perhaps a youthful abberration, something he has since outgrown and now regrets. A look at a long, vitriolic 'Open Letter to the War Generation' which Bolton posted to the neo-Nazi Stormfront website in 2003 should dispel any doubts about the man's continued attachment to Hitlerism and Holocaust denial. Bolton's letter explains why the Jews deserved the Nuremberg Laws, the Kristallnacht, and internment in the 1930s:

German Jews were rounded up as enemy aliens, since their own leaders publicly declared "war" on Hitler the very year he achieved Government, 1933, at a time when there were few restrictions put on Jews. The Jews, under Samuel Untermeyer organised a world economic boycott to try and wreck Germany economically. Jews and their communist allies organised boycotts of shops that sold Germany goods. People were beaten up by Jewish-communist thugs if they tried to resist.

Despite its insistence on the evil of the Jews, Bolton's 'Open Letter' denies that they were ever targetted for mass extermination. The Holocaust is, apparently, a myth designed to denigrate that great humanitarian, Adolf Hitler:

So what was Hitler's "crime". And why is he still being demonised, even though his alleged "war crimes" have now been shown to have been inventions of Allied war propaganda (of the type that told Britons during World War I about the bayoneting of Belgium babies and the crucifixion of Canadian soldiers, etc.). Why is he still so feared?

It is because he inaugurated a new form of government that was based on the folkish community, where "the common interest {comes} before self-interest"? Youth were given a sense of purpose, were clean living, worked at a stretch of Labour Service regardless of class or family wealth. Even William Shirer remarked on the callow, unhealthy English youth, in comparison to the healthy vigour of German youth.

Bolton has not always chosen neo-Nazi venues like Stormfront and the Adelaide Institute to express his beliefs. He has written many letters to New Zealand's mainstream media expounding his views on race, Hitler, World War Two, and the Holocaust. On the 9th of September 2003 The Listener carried a letter from Bolton which commented on the controversy surrounding Joel Hayward, the Canterbury University student who wrote a Masters thesis denying the Holocaust. An internal investigation found that the thesis had been poorly supervised and that it was full of errors. Hayward eventually recanted his views and accepted the reality of the Holocaust, but he has nevertheless remained a hero to many neo-Nazis.

Bolton's letter to The Listener defends Hayward's thesis by citing the work of a series of notorious Holocaust deniers:

[Listener writer Philip] Mathews fails to acknowledge the academic credentials of the revisionists he cites, doctors Countess and Toben. Proponents of holocaust orthodoxy claim that revisionism has no academic standing. Most spokesmen for revisionism are academics, or are qualified in relevant fields such as engineering and toxicology...

Where Dr Hayward errs is in his retraction of his conclusions. The original Leuchter investigation of the alleged Auschwitz gas chambers has been professionally replicated by Germar Rudolf, chemical analysis showing that there is insufficient cyanide residue for these buildings to have been used for mass executions.

Like the Adelaide Institute's Frederick Toben, who earned his recent term in an Australian prison with his violent anti-Jewish outbursts, Germar Rudolf is an anti-semite whose 'research' into the Holocaust is designed as a defence of the Hitler regime he reveres. Rudolf was convicted of inciting racial hatred in Germany in 1995 and was jailed again in 2007 for Holocaust denial.

Bolton's book about the Holocaust and his 2003 letters on the subject make it quite clear that he has been a long-time denier of the biggest genocide of the twentieth century. The rants about 'Jewish-communists' and paeans to Hitler which punctuate his texts reveal the political motivations of his 'research' into the Holocaust.

Bolton has attempted to be more discreet about his Holocaust denial and his neo-Nazism in recent years. He likes to use euphemisms like 'revisionist' rather than the ugly term 'Holocaust denier', and he prefers to call himself a 'radical European conservative', rather than a Nazi or a fascist. But the essence of Bolton's thought has not changed. If we examine Bolton's recent book Thinkers of the Right: Challenging Materialism, which purports to be a series of potted biographies of twentieth century intellectuals like Martin Heidegger and New Zealand's ARD Fairburn, we find the old prejudices alive and well.

In the book's chapter on the Italian Futurist poet and fascist Filippo Marinetti, for example, Bolton eulogises the short-lived Italian Social Republic which Benito Mussolini founded in the north of Italy after he had lost most of his country to partisans and Allied invaders. Bolton presents the Social Republic as an almost utopian enterprise:

The fascist faithful established a last stand, in the north, named the Italian Social Republic. With a new idealism, even former communist and liberal leaders were drawn to the Republic. The Manifesto of Verona was drafted, restoring various liberties, and championing labour against plutocracy within the vision of a united Europe.

In reality, the Italian Social Republic was one of the purest expressions of Nazism ever to exist outside of Nazi Germany. Hitler's troops propped up the state, Nuremberg-style laws prevented races mixing, and Jews were deported in their thousands to death camps north of the Alps. The Manifesto of Verona called for Mussolini's movement to return to its fascist roots, demanded the expulsion of Jews from Europe, and called for the continent's warring powers to unite and establish a single empire that could rule all of Africa and Asia.

No one who was not a committed neo-Nazi could write favourably about the Italian Social Republic. Bolton's support for Mussolini's last government, and his failure to mention the role of that government in the Holocaust, show that he still holds the views expressed in his book The Holocaust Myth and in his 2003 letters to The Listener and to Stormfront, as well in his many articles for anti-semitic organisations like the Adelaide Institute.

The Broadcasting Standards Authority has flown in the face of overwhelming evidence in refusing to consider Kerry Bolton a Holocaust denier. By failing to do their research, the BSA's members have given a Christmas present to neo-Nazis, and invited public ridicule. I hope that they will find the time to consider the texts I have discussed in this post, and that they will overturn their judgement when it is appealed.

When the bookworm and the prophet met

By the standards of this out-of-shape, couch-loving, getting-to-be-middle-aged bloke, 2009 has been a year of adventures.

I've sweated through the jungles of Samoa looking for prehistoric monuments and evidence of the depravity of Kiwi colonialism, followed the Indiana Jones-like Edward Ashby as he brought his archaeological skills to bear on the caves, buried walls, and ancient portage routes of Northland's Mahinepua peninsula, and stumbled through a sandstorm on the shores of the ancient and very dry Lake Mungo, deep in the Australian Outback. (I think that, if Skyler is not reading this post, I can probably risk calling the civil union we celebrated in January an adventure, as well...)

And yet, as TS Eliot and my old English teacher Ms Cournane were both fond of saying, there are adventures in art, as well as adventures in life. For me, one of the greatest adventures of 2009 took place not on the salt flats of the Outback or in the ravines of Samoa, but in the Special Collections Room of the University of Auckland library, where I slogged across the vast, sometimes arid, often strangely-detailed expanse of Kendrick Smithyman's papers between August and November. I'll be publishing two Smithyman-related books next year - one of them will be a collection of my ‘anti-travel’ writing inspired by his place-poems, the other will be a sampling of his uncollected writings with commentaries by me - and my excavations in Special Collections were aimed towards these ends, but they soon developed a logic of their own, as one freshly-unearthed document led to another. Maps can only take one so far.

I thought I'd show one of my excavated finds here, because it relates interestingly to a debate we had on this blog last Christmas, and to the discussion that my rather inadequate response to the St Matthews-in-the-city billboard has prompted over the past couple of days.

This time last year I googled Kendrick Smithyman's immense online Collected Poems, and discovered that rare thing - a very fine poem with the word 'Christmas' in its title. 'A Riddle at Christmas' bred an interesting discussion, as readers responded to the poem's description of a journey down the Whanganui River, past the utopian religious settlement that the great Kiwi poet James K Baxter established in the hamlet of Jerusalem, to the wild west coast of Te Ika a Maui.

One of the themes of the discussion 'A Riddle at Christmas' prompted was the difficulty of reconciling Smithyman and Baxter, as poets and as people. Baxter was a charismatic man, outspoken on social and political as well as religious issues, who wrote limpid lyric poems; Smithyman was a very private individual who was much more comfortable in a library than on a stage, and who wrote poems that sometimes seem to demand to be studied and decoded, rather than read and enjoyed. One of the contributors to last year's discussion insisted that Smithyman and Baxter represent a choice that every enthusiast for Kiwi literature has to make:

Smithyman and Baxter were poetic 'opposites'. Smithyman thought Baxter over-rated. There is an ironic tone to the references to Baxter in this poem. Sooner or later, all readers of NZ verse must choose between the two men.

And yet there are similarities as well as differences between Baxter and Smithyman. Both men were born in the 1920s, and were thus half a generation, at least, younger than the group of writers, painters, and critics who established what we can fairly call the school of modernist nationalism in New Zealand in the thirties and the forties.

In the thirties and forties, nationalist painters like Colin McCahon and poets like Charles Brasch and Allen Curnow surveyed the thinly-populated, philistine society they had been born into, and decided that it needed to be endowed with the sort of myths and symbols that only art in its most heroic guise can provide. Brasch wrote that New Zealand's 'empty' hills and plains 'cry for meaning', and McCahon responded by kidnapping angels and virgins from Renaissance frescoes and dumping them in the backcountry of the South Island. In a series of solemn and sonorous poems, Curnow turned the story of European contact with and settlement of New Zealand, from the foray of Abel Tasman to the uneasy settlements established by that pioneering venture capitalist Wakefield in the nineteenth century, into an epic without a hero, but with plenty of blood-smeared symbols.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, in my rebuke to Chris Trotter's reading of my old mate Ronald Hugh Morrieson, the myths of the nationalists did not go unchallenged by younger writers and artists. Smithyman and Baxter were both unhappy with the way that the myth of an empty land seemed to simplify New Zealand history by ignoring the stories of Maori and of unfashionable Pakeha minorities. Both men also despised the puritanical, philistine, obsessively racist and super-patriotic society that was postwar New Zealand. As military adventures in Malaya and Korea and whites-only rugby tours of South Africa were justified in terms of Kiwi nationalism, the concept lost the magic it had held for some intellectuals in the thirties and forties.

Smithyman was a writer before all else - as Peter Simpson has memorably said, 'he spent his whole life in front of a typewriter' - so it is not surprising that his objections to the myths of New Zealand nationalism were made on the page, rather than on any public stage. For Baxter, the choice between the life and the work was more difficult, and led him to turn his hand to social campaigning and community-building as well as to sonnets and sestinas. In their different ways both men were significant critics of postwar New Zealand society.

Unlike most of today's social commentators, Baxter and Smithyman were preoccupied with the crisis of religion in the modern age. Like McCahon, who wrestled for years with Catholicism, and Curnow, who completed a theology degree and was en route for his first vicarage when he lost his faith during a particularly stormy crossing of the Cook Strait, Baxter wanted very much to believe in God, but struggled to reconcile this desire with an awareness of the reactionary role of many Christian organisations and the steady march of science into the realm of religious mystery.

Baxter's famous conversion to an inscrutable form of Catholicism in the '60s, and the strangely holy community of junkies and drifters he assembled deep in the Whanganui valley, represented an attempt to leap forward from the traditional Anglicanism and Catholicism that McCahon and Curnow had struggled with. Baxter wanted his community, and his own personal lifestyle, to be models for a new, improved Zealand, a place where material possessions were less important than aroha, and where anybody could kip down on anybody else's floor for the night. Baxter's experiment at Jerusalem and his continuing flow of self-dramatising poems won his ideas a large audience, but he failed to win many Kiwis over to his worldview. He died alone of a heart attack, on the doorstep of a stranger who had refused his agonised requests for help.

The most radical part of Baxter's thought was his notion that Pakeha and Maori were afflicted by the same spiritual crisis, and needed to come together to escape this crisis. With their rhetoric of an empty land without history, the nationalists of the thirties and forties tended to disregard Maori, and focus on the problems of a settler people in a strange new country. Maori belonged to the past; Pakeha were the future. For Baxter, though, the same forces which menace Maori - materialism, alienation from tradition, the break-up of family - also afflict Pakeha. It is hardly surprising that Baxter chose to give his mainly-Pakeha 'tribe' of followers the Maori name Ngati Hau.

Despite his iconoclasm, Baxter was in some respects a quite conservative thinker. By setting himself the task of becoming a 'healthy cell in the sick body of society', he affirmed a view of identity and history which has its origins and exemplars in the ‘advanced’ capitalist nations of the West. According to the view Baxter implicitly upheld, society is made up of autonomous individuals who make more or less informed decisions about how to interact with the world, and historical change happens when enough of those individuals begin to act in new ways. Neither Descartes nor Adam Smith would find anything objectionable in such propositions.

To read Baxter's relentlessly autobiographical poetry today is to admire the rage he felt towards the uglier parts of the world he lived in, as well as the grace with which he went about challenging the ugliness he found so easily. Whether he is puffing and sucking in dust at the Chelsea Sugar Works and decrying the lot of the industrial worker, rolling a cigarette for a junkie in a Grafton squat and lamenting the brutality of New Zealand's justice system, or chopping firewood beside the Whanganui River and admiring the naked bodies of his female followers, Baxter remains a tremendously engaging figure. And yet all of the poet's diverse activities, and all of the ingenious political tactics he deployed, were premised on the idea that the sick body of his society could be regenerated, a cell or a few cells at a time, through the power of exemplary individual action.

For Kendrick Smithyman, the conventionally individualist understanding of identity and history Baxter acceded to made no sense. By the time he reached his late twenties, Smithyman had arrived at an extremely unusual and extremely radical view of human identity, society and history. Like Baxter, and McCahon and Curnow for that matter, Smithyman lamented the decline of religion in the modern age. Like Baxter, if not McCahon and Curnow, Smithyman believed that the narrow, repressive society of postwar New Zealand was a product, in part, of the loss of the healthy traditions that religion had protected in pre-modern society.

Unlike Baxter, though, Smithyman did not believe that individual humans make history, and had no faith in the ability of campaigning intellectuals to turn the tide of history in one direction or another. In an interview with Metro magazine near the end of his life, Smithyman argued that 'we live inside history and language'. This somewhat cryptic statement reflected his belief that individual human identity comes from outside the individual human, and is involuntarily and unconsciously acquired, rather than freely chosen. We are who we are, Smithyman believes, because of forces we can seldom understand, let alone control.

Smithyman's views fused some of the doctrines of Marxism, an ideology he conducted a youthful 'love affair' with in the forties, with the later philosophy of Martin Heidegger. From Marx Smithyman took the notion that history is determined by economic, environmental, and technological forces, but not the notion that humans can act together politically to become masters of that history.

From Heidegger Smithyman took a deep suspicion of technology and scientism, and the idea that the modern era is characterised by an extreme 'technological nihilism'. Smithyman also found in Heidegger the notion that the human individual is something of an illusion, because human identity is only intelligible in terms of the network of relationships that humans have with both animate and inanimate objects. The individual human can be, at best, a sort of 'clearing', where other things manifest themselves.

For Smithyman, ours is fundamentally an irreligious age, and no amount of evangelising, whether from radical Catholics like Baxter or cultural conservatives like (say) Bob McCrokie, will affect that fact. Even if every single New Zealander joined a church, this society would remain irreligious, and God would remain dead, because those churches, with their emphases on individual self-improvement, their cause and affect understanding of morality and God's actions, and their tendency to produce vulgar and thoroughly worldy images of states of bliss and the afterlife, are simply reproductions of the industrial, materialistic, scientistic spirit of our society. A breach has opened up between the supernatural and the everyday, the ordinary life and the afterlife, the magical and the useful, and this breach cannot be healed. It is pointless, then, to try to reanimate God. Baxter was on the wrong road, even if for the right reasons.

During the last years of his life the heavily-bearded, barefooted prophet of Jerusalem would make occasional forays into the University of Auckland, often with a troupe of followers, and sometimes to perform his poetry. On one of these visits Baxter encountered Kendrick Smithyman.

In March 1971, eighteen months before Baxter's lonely death, Smithyman sat down at his typewriter and tried to write a poem about his meeting with the man who had taken to calling himself Hemi. Smithyman produced four drafts of his poem, each of them quite different from the others. This draft, which was produced on the 28th of March, is the most polished, and was apparently intended for publication in Smithyman's 1974 collection The Seal in the Dolphin Pool. For reasons that are unclear, though, the poem was not published in that book, nor in any subsequent Smithyman collection.

I'll offer my own commentary on this extraordinary text in a later post, and in doing so try to substantiate some of the alarmingly bold statements I've made about Smithyman and Baxter in this post. In the meantime, tell me what the poem means to you!


From this bach I set out
lines like antennae, towards that man
lion-maned, in the lion's skin
of wilful poverty. He lugs his burden,
a public conscience. Romantics call it soul,
of a poet. Him I met
on a stairway of the Library/Arts
Building. His life-style packed his arms.
Mine, cumbered with books, notes
for classes, and apology.
We embraced.

It is hard to embrace.
An undemonstrative people, we care
to play it cold. Fate or the Dog,

is it fate or the Dog that harks
our footfall, or merely aptness
for the Absurd? He offered aroha,
and I stepped on his bare toes.
His son, whose mother is Maori, stood
at the mezzanine landing
looking down to the dispossessed
fathers, elders of a landless tribe.

Those who think it affectation
that he should change his life and worse,
his name, criticise him. Traditionalist,
as though baptismal he took
a Maori name. Why not?

I respect his gesture.
His way forward may be the way back.
In any case, I read in a letter
from East Africa words quoted
of a student: 'We are all
cultural mulattos...' Some by
genetic accident, some by social
circumstancing. By act of will,
Hemi, not many. That feeds on
Ercles' vein, a tyrant vein.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

An attack on liberal Anglicanism - and on art?

Anger tends to induce incoherence, so it is perhaps not surprising that the Christians who attacked the billboard erected outside St Matthews church last week have been unable to explain their actions clearly.

Even the Family First organisation, which has acted as a cheerleader for the men and woman who took to the billboard with paint and knives, has struggled to explain exactly why the portrait of a wistful Mary and a dejected Joseph in the sack was so offensive. Family First leader Bob McCoskrie called the billboard outside St Matthews 'irresponsible and unnecessary', and claimed that it might damage the morals of passing children, but he didn't explain how he reached these curious conclusions. In a discussion thread on David Farrar's Kiwiblog, opponents of the billboard were repeatedly asked to explain why it constituted an attack on Christian doctrine, let alone community morals, and were unable to fashion a coherent reply.

The billboard's assumption that Mary and Joseph had sex runs counter to Catholic doctrine, which teaches that Mary remained, for rather mysterious reasons, a 'perpetual virgin', but it is consistent with Anglican beliefs, and St Matthews is an Anglican church. Family First and other critics of St Matthews have claimed that the church has become a haven for heretical liberals who want to revise the most basic tenets of Christianity, yet it can be argued that, whatever the views of the people who funded it, the billboard's image implicitly affirms the virgin birth, which most theologians would consider one of the pillars of the faith.

To understand why the image outside St Matthews has caused offense, we have to understand it as a work of art, and not as some sort of coded theological statement. Some of us might shrink from considering the billboard as an artwork, because it was created on commission, as part of an advertising campaign, but the same could be said, surely, for some of the most famous paintings and sculptures in the canon of Christian art. Like all good art, the St Matthews billboard cannot be summed up by the slogans which are the stock in trade of philistine politicians like Bob McCroskie. We must each interpret it, and the interpretations we create will be affected by our presuppositions and preoccupations.

The Mary of the St Matthews billboard lacks the signs of holiness that devotional art normally awards her. She does not wear a halo, she does not smile radiantly, and her face does not seem to glow with health. She lies with a distracted, slightly irritated expression beside her disconsolate husband, who has, as a caption unnecessarily informs us, found God 'a hard act to follow'. God is absent from the scene, but he is certainly not forgotten. For Mary, he is an ecstatic memory, which makes her present existence seem diminished and inadequate; for Joseph, he is an oppressive, because unattainable, ideal.

In its depiction of people troubled by the absence of a God they still desire, the St Matthews billboard echoes one of the great themes of modern art. With urbanisation, the breakdown of what FR Leavis liked to call 'organic' communities, the advent of mass education, the advances of science into areas formerly reserved for religion, and the failing grip of religious institutions on the state, church attendances have been in decline for many decades in New Zealand and most other Western nations. In modernist masterpieces like the paintings of De Chirico, with their barren cityscapes, and the plays of Samuel Beckett, with their characters waiting hopelessly for the intervention of a higher power, we see a lament for the absence of God from the modern world. Like the characters in Waiting for Godot, the figures on the St Matthews billboard are disappointed believers, desperate to feel close to a deity who has become distant and mysterious. The artist has made Mary and Joseph modern.

The feeling of isolation from God has been particularly intense in colonial nations like New Zealand, where the arrival of Christianity coincided with the arrival of modernity. To the settlers who carried statues of Mary and massive family bibles off their ships, the landscape of Aotearoa often seemed alien and pagan. More than a few of the missionaries charged with planting the Christian faith amongst the tangata whenua of the new land went mad, or committed suicide, or followed the path of Thomas Kendall, who 'went native' and became a sort of tohunga for the warlord Hongi Hika.

Lacking Europe's venerable Christian tradition and its 'Christianised landscapes' of spired shires and cathedral towns, those Pakeha New Zealanders who held on to their faith often felt embattled, even besieged. Many of New Zealand's oldest churches were built so that they could double as forts in times of war. I grew up down the road from a Presbyterian church surrounded by a trench, and marked by bullets; a few kilometres up another road an Anglican church had slots in its walls that the barrels of guns could be thrust through. Long after the wars were over and Pakeha control of most of the country had been consolidated, the siege mentality persisted, in theologies that were tightly defined and intemperately defended.

It was Pakeha artists, rather than Pakeha theologians or politicians, who were first able to step outside the bounds of siege Christianity and examine the problems of belief in a modern society that had been roughly laid over an ancient and alien land. In the 1940s Colin McCahon produced a series of paintings that relocated Biblical characters to a New Zealand landscape of bare hills, squat buildings, and heavy skies. In one of these paintings, an angel hovers uncertainly over the little clubhouse of Takaka golf course; in another, the two Marys stand sadly beside Christ's tomb, while a couple of kanuka cower on a windy ridge in the distance. McCahon's paintings express what a struggle he had to feel at home in the New Zealand landscape and in the Christian doctrine. With their fusion of New and Old World imagery, they anticipate the noble but futile efforts of theologians like Lloyd Geering to reconstruct Christianity so that it is more suitable to life in a bicultural nation at the other end of the world from Europe.

Like the billboard outside St Matthews, McCahon's early religious paintings outraged conservative Christians when they were exhibited in the 1940s and '50s. Many of the condemnations of McCahon were just as incoherent as the condemnations of the St Matthews billboard have been, and they had the same cause: the reluctance of many conservatives to deal honestly with the distance of God from modern New Zealand life. Like the Latin masses which diehard conservative Catholics still hold around New Zealand and the nostalgia for a golden age of happy families and God-fearing citizenry that Bob McCoskrie constantly stokes, the mutilation of the St Matthews billboard was designed to pre-empt the sort of confrontation with reality that Colin McCahon dared sixty years ago.

A number of atheist commentators have been shaking their heads and chuckling at the attacks on the St Matthews billboard, but it is not clear whether they are more prepared than the vandals for a serious discussion of the consequences of the death of God. The shallowness of the so-called 'New Atheism' championed by the likes of Richard Dawkins and the appalling Christopher Hitchens is expressed very well in the current campaign to put ads with the slogan 'God Probably Doesn't Exist. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy your Life' on the sides of New Zealand buses. For many people in New Zealand and in the rest of the West, it is the very absence of God which sometimes makes life difficult to enjoy. For these people, the persistence of the concept of God combined with the inability to believe in God makes life seem obscurely impoverished, in spite of its many pleasures. Mary and Joseph might understand.

If Skyler gives me enough time out from Christmas shopping expeditions, then I'll follow this post up with an account of the alternative to both untenable religion and bourgeois atheism that Kendrick Smithyman shows us in his writings.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Aidan Work and the absurdities of Pakeha separatism

Race relations are likely to be a topic of conversation around the nation's barbies over the Christmas and New Year break, thanks to the government's decision to allow the flying of the tino rangatiratanga flag at Waitangi Day ceremonies, and its endorsement of the Geographic Board's judgement that an 'h' should be added to the name of the fair town of Wanganui.

Although they only concern symbols, both decisions are responses to long campaigns by Maori, and both raise tricky questions about the character of New Zealand society and the New Zealand state. On talkback radio and on right-wing blogs, the backlash against 'Maori separatism' and 'the desecration of our flag' has begun. Caller after caller and commenter after commenter warns that advocates of tino rangatiratanga want to dismantle New Zealand and to physically separate Maori from Pakeha, perhaps by sending the latter back to Britain on the next ship.

I have argued in a number of posts that the equation of tino rangatiratanga with the dismemberment of New Zealand and the establishment of a separate Maori state is largely a figment of the Pakeha imagination. Since the invasion and sacking of Rua Kenana's community at Maungapohatu in 1916, there has been no large-scale secessionist movement amongst Maori. While activists like Eva Rickard and Tame Iti have at one time or another made declarations of independence on behalf of the people of various rohe, these proclamations have been tools to promote particular campaigns for the righting of past injustices, not serious stabs at secession. The 'Takimoana nation' proclaimed in the East Cape region of the North Island in 2007 appears to be a more serious proposal, but it seems to have attracted few enthusiasts. Even Tuhoe, the bete noire of Pakeha talkback hosts, are demanding only regional autonomy in their ongoing Treaty of Waitangi negotiations with the Crown.

The evidence suggests that, for the vast majority of its advocates, tino rangatiratanga means the creation of what Jose Aylwin has called a 'pluri-national' state, in which indigenous people have the freedom to set up their own institutions to deal with their own concerns. During his recent lecture tour of New Zealand, Aylwin showed that the ideal of a pluri-national state is becoming a reality in Bolivia and in Ecuador, where indigenous peoples are winning regional and economic autonomy.

I would argue that it is Pakeha, not Maori, who are raising the spectre of separatism in our country today. When Maori suggest the elaboration of the New Zealand state, so that it embodies the binational ideal they see in the Treaty of Waitangi, right-wing Pakeha - and one or two supposedly left-wing Pakeha, as well - respond by talking about the dismemberment of New Zealand, and fantasise about the corralling of Maori and Pakeha into separate states.

A comment that Aidan Work recently left on this blog shows up some of the ironies of Pakeha separatism. Work appears fairly typical of some of the characters who populate the socially conservative part of the right-wing fringe of Kiwi politics. In the 1990s he achieved renown in certain circles as a critic of the Family Court, and of the wider machinations of the 'feminist conspiracy' against good Kiwi blokes. More recently, he has blogged about the perfidies of Republicanism , and been expelled from the Monarchist League for an excess of fervour. Although Work is fond of questioning the patriotism of his political opponents, his contribution to this blog advocates secession from New Zealand:

I reckon that Michael Laws was more than right to have referred the issue to a referendum...

As for Tariana Turia, she is the most racist person I've ever met, considering that she is not only a racist crook, but a criminal advocate of apartheid. All this talk of 'Tino Rangatiratanga' is a load of bullshit. It makes my blood boil with anger that the Maori Nationalist criminals are allowed to get away with promoting their hate, thanks to the politicians who are sitting in Parliament appeasing the so-called 'Maori Party', who are nothing but a bunch of criminals anyway!

...I'm a native of Wanganui myself...The time for amending the Race Relations Act,1971 to proscribe criminal outfits, such as both the so-called 'Maori Party' & the 'National Front' is long overdue, as is for inserting a clause to provide for the death penalty to be imposed on those who engage in promoting apartheid.

As one who opposed the illegal occupation of Moutoa Gardens back in 1995, I still remain extremely angry that no-one has been called to account, let alone, been put on trial.

The time for Wanganui to secede from the Dominion of New Zealand is long overdue! Wanganui would be better off as a British colony like Bermuda, the Falkland Islands, & Gibraltar.

Work's proposal for the secession of Wanganui would appear to kill several birds with one stone: it would dispose of attempts by the government in Wellington to change the town's name, it would render irrelevant the question of whether or not the tino rangatiratanga banner should fly beside the 'official' Kiwi flag, and it would deprive the evil Tariana Turia of a fair chunk of her electorate (although, since Turia would, in Work's ideal world, be sitting in prison awaiting execution, the redrawing of her electorate boundaries perhaps wouldn't trouble her too much).
And, who knows, the Brits might even be keen on reabsorbing Wanganui. Despite the gangs Michael Laws is always talking about, the place would probably be easier to run than Basra.

Work's proposal has something of a precedent, too, on the central west coast of Te Ika a Maui. In 1879 a Republic of Hawera was briefly established in the south Taranaki, by a local landowner - 'President' James Livingstone - and his armed and exclusively Pakeha supporters. Like Aidan Work, the Hawera settlers were motivated by anti-Maori bigotry: they had been frustrated by the failure of the government in Wellington to suppress the movement of passive resistance to land sales that was being led by the Parihaka prophet Te Whiti. The Hawera secessionists hoped that by establishing their own state they would be able to deal more ruthlessly with the troublesome prophet and his followers, but they were quickly placated by Wellington, and in 1881 they rejoiced at the invasion of Parihaka and the smashing of Te Whiti's power.

More recently, there have been rather quixotic attempts to establish a Pakeha ethno-state in some of the remoter regions of Te Wai Pounamu by Kyle Chapman and his neo-Nazi chums. After 'patrolling' a slice of the southern high country with their air rifles, and Kyle and co announced plans to buy land for a whites-only settlement in north Canterbury. Unfortunately for Kyle, WINZ wasn't keen on paying for his idea.

Aidan Work's proposal for the secession of Wanganui is no more likely to bear fruit than Chapman's campaign to win lebensraum on the Canterbury steppe. In its very extremity, though, Work's position brings clearly out some of the essential features of the right-wing Pakeha backlash against tino rangatiratanga. Work's demand that the Maori Party be violently repressed is only an exaggerated version of the call by so many blog commenters and talkback callers for the abolition of the Maori seats and MMP, which are held responsible for 'giving the Maoris too much power'.
Work's silly attempts to compare the Maori Party to Sinn Fein and the Zimbabwe African National Union - organisations with their own, very particular national antecdents - reflects a widespread Pakeha failure to understand the Maori political leaders of the present in terms of New Zealand's past, and the Maori experience of that past. And Work's rather pathetic appeal to dear old Blighty to rescue Wanganui from the savages reflects the failure of conservative Pakeha to embrace their identity and destiny as New Zealanders, rather than seeing themselves as displaced sons and daughters of Empire.

As usual, talkback radio has got it wrong. It's Pakeha racism and separatism we should be worried about, not the advocates of tino rangatiratanga.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On the cave walls of the town

I've often wondered whether the power of certain artworks is connected to their fragility. There are many painters who have for one reason or another - economic necessity, or modesty, or fatalism - chosen to work with or on materials which give their artefacts a limited lifespan.

In his reconstruction of the short and spectacular career of Kiwi neo-expressionist Philip Clairmont, Martin Edmond suggests that his hero chose to work on frail materials like hessian and to use poor quality paints because he rejected the idea that art should be eternal. Clairmont was obsessed with death long before he suicided in 1984, and he may have derived a sort of comfort from the fact that his work would decay as surely as his body. Would it be romantic to suggest that the yellows and azure blues of Clairmont's paintings shine more brightly, because the material on which they are dashed is thinning and crumbling?

It is not only modern artists who have worked on surfaces which threaten their creations. The paintings and carvings that pre-industrial peoples have made on stone and wood are vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature, and require augmenting or revising if they are to survive indefinitely.

In many parts of the world, the violent appearance of modern society has broken the cultural traditions that gave meaning to prehistoric paintings and carvings. As the guns, holy books, and ploughs of invaders abolish old ways of living and thinking, images which once instantly aroused a chuckle or a sigh or a vow become alien, inscrutable things, of interest only to the archaeologists and tourists who follow inevitably in the rearguard of the colonising army.

I remember leaning over a thistled cliff-edge in north Otago, gawking at something - a long, luxuriously curved river, or moon, or tail - painted faintly on the crumbling wall of a cave just large enough to hide a frightened sheep. In the somewhat more comfortable environs of museums, I've stood for hours in front of painted panels that have been hewn, in acts of preservation that are nonetheless sacrilegious, off the walls of other obscure caves in the interior of Te Wai Pounamu. The meaning of these works has been lost to the culture that created them. The images have not died, so much as transmogrified into mere motifs - decontextualised formal arrangements that have been attractive to Pakeha modernist artists and designers like Theo Schoon, ARD Fairburn, and Gordon Walters.

In Australia, where the tradition of outdoor painting was far more developed, rock art has become big business. Both indigenous and white Australian tour companies compete to fly tourists to remote caves and ravines, and to explicate the images which survive there. Many of the explications depend on indigenous storytelling, not modernist theory, because the connection between the outdoor galleries and the peoples who created them was never completely broken.

Yet although many Aboriginal peoples retain knowledge of the meaning of their outdoor art, few of them paint or carve on rock walls today. Recently Wamud Nomak, the last man to paint on the rocks of the Northern Territory's western Arnhem Land region, died at the age of eighty-three. The open-air galleries of the western Arnhem Land have become open-air museums; any future work on them seems likely to be done by conservators and archaeologists intent on preservation, not artists intent on elaboration.

The guides who usher parties of Japanese and Swedish tourists through remote galleries will probably benefit from the final breaks in the living connection to rock art. Many of those who come to brush flies from their faces, gawk and click cameras are attracted by the idea that they are looking at the residue of an ancient, bygone civilisation. Like the shopper who pauses over expensive silverware in an antique shop, they are attracted by the glamour that age and lack of use can give to objects. The wistfully sentimental response to the death of Wamud Nomak in parts of the Australian media suggests that the desire to consign Aboriginal outdoor art to the past is strong.

Before I visited Australia earlier this year I was certainly inclined to see the outdoor painters of the Outback as doomed, noble figures, at odds with the modern world - as indigenous versions, perhaps, of Philip Clairmont and other ill-fated Bohemian painters of the West.

As Skyer and I travelled through the little towns that cling to mines, truck stops, and bottle shops beyond the Murray River, though, I was astonished to discover paintings all around me. On the cave walls of towns like Broken Hill, Wilcannia, and Dubbo, a new generation of painters is creating ambitious, eclectic, and sometimes angry works which at once innovative and recognisably Aboriginal. These murals are seldom mentioned in tour guides, and buses do not park beside them and disgorge elderly tourists. Broken Hill was not an important pre-contact Aboriginal place, because it lacked water. Nowadays, though, about five per cent of the town's population is Aboriginal. The Barkindji peoples, who live in the Darling region of New South Wales which includes the Hill, have a distinctive traditional painting style: where the 'Desert Aboriginals' of central Australia famously use dots, the Barkindji have often built their art around lines. An Aboriginal school of art exists in Broken Hill, and a number of murals around the town feature work by its graduates.

This painting, which decorates the side of an Aboriginal-owned building in Broken Hill, shows the eclecticism of the new outdoor art. Although it includes some Barkindji elements, the head of the mythological figure it depicts alludes to the gwion gwion style (also known as the Bradshaw style) of art which is found in the Kimberley region of far northwest Australia. The gwion gwion mode was abandoned by the people of the Kimberleys many thousands of years ago, but it can still be found on hundreds of thousands of rock walls, and it has drawn the attention of many non-Aboriginals - and, unfortunately, become a magnet for pseudo-historians fond of wacky speculations about lost civilisations - because it seems superficially to resemble certain European and Middle Eastern styles of art. The artists of the Kimberleys have little interest in the gwion gwion mode, so it seems that the modern Barkindji artists may have come across the style as a result of European enthusiasm. By taking over elements of the gwion gwion style Barkindji artists have perhaps protected its mana.

A thousand or so kilometres to the east, beside a railway line on the messy outskirts of the rural service town of Dubbo, Aboriginal artists have covered the shadowy concrete pillars of a bridge with murals whose confident forms and bright colours seem to mock their inauspicious setting. Not even racist graffiti diminishes the glory of these obscure, anonymous works of a living art tradition. If you're planning a trip to Australia, then my advice is to skip the thousand dollar helicopter ride to the cave in the Kimberleys, and head down to the scruffy side of the nearest town. Great art waits there.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My advice to Vanda Vitali

After watching a long series of controversies inundate the Auckland War Memorial museum, the institution's Trust Board has finally asked the Director it hired in 2007 a few questions about her performance. True to form, Vanda Vitali has reacted rather badly to the Board's enquiries, and the two parties are now communicating through their lawyers. Auckland mayor John Banks, who has always previously backed Vitali, says that he can't 'see a way forward' from the latest imbroglio.

For a significant number of New Zealanders - former employees of the museum who were sacked for incomprehensible reasons, Maori angered by the weakening of their representation at the institution, admirers of Edmund Hillary saddened by attempts to appropriate parts of the great man's papers, retired servicemen treated with contempt by the Director and her bureaucrats, and museum visitors annoyed by gimmicky, once-over-lightly exhibitions - the puzzle is not that the Board has fallen out with Vitali, but that the confrontation has taken so long to develop.

I worked at the museum in 2007 and 2008, and thus witnessed first-hand the impact Vitali had on the institution. When Vitali climbed aboard late in 2007, the museum was a fairly positive, well-functioning workplace. By the winter of 2008 the museum was in crisis, as Vitali's scorched earth 'restructuring process' folded up whole sections of the institution and robbed more than ninety staff of their old jobs.

Vitali added insult to injury by couching her 'reforms' in a mixture of corporate doublespeak and New Age goobledygook, and by patronising the staff she was throwing out of their jobs. At one mass meeting, she solemnly informed us that she was moving the museum from 'a linear model of organisation to a new, exciting, matrix model', and assured those of us who were having to apply for new, externally-advertised positions that we were 'facing an exciting opportunity, not a threat'. When the latter remarks prompted several barely muffled groans, Vitali insisted that staff who had lost their jobs should be 'thankful' to her for 'believing' in them enough to give them the 'test' they faced.

As a union delegate, I had the honour of meeting face to face with Vitali on a few occasions. At one meeting, which our Public Services Association organiser had hoped might help to educate her in such arcane matters as collective contracts and workers' rights, Vanda announced that when she had been a boss at the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History trade unionists had been thin on the ground, and a system of 'instant dismissal' had existed. 'The staff liked it as much as me', she said. 'It was best for everyone'.

As workers with decades of experience disappeared and others either waited for the results of their reapplications or struggled to get to grips with new, oddly constructed job descriptions, core museum services began to suffer from the 'test' Vitali had so kindly devised for her staff. Vitali's response was not to reverse track, but to redefine the tasks of the museum. When curators were so scarce that no one could be found to assess gifts to the museum, the Director announced a 'moratorium' on new acquisitions. Visitors who turned up with beautiful prehistoric artefacts they had dug up on the farm or fragile war diaries their ancestors had preserved were told to take their taonga someplace else.

Vitali didn't have a great deal of reverence for the objects that the museum actually held. When she was told that a shortage of conservators caused by her restructuring meant that artefacts on display were in danger of deteriorating, she replied by pointing out that the museum had lots more 'old stuff' in storage. Couldn't staff just get some of that out and display it instead?

There are many more stories I could tell about Vitali, but there is a risk of blaming her entirely for the recent disasters at the museum, and forgetting that she was hired by the Trust Board, which enthusiastically endorsed her attempts at 'restructuring'. Perhaps we should actually be thankful for Vitali's appalling people skills, encyclopedic ignorance of New Zealand society and history, and inability to think clearly: without the controversies these deficits have created, she might be in a much more secure position, and the damage to the museum might be less reversible.

It can be argued that Auckland museum is one of the sites where two different visions of the role of museums in contemporary society are doing battle. According to the first vision, which has been put forward most forcefully in New Zealand by Hamish Keith, a museum should primarily be a place where the heritage of a community or set of communities is preserved, studied, and communicated. While it is desirable for a museum to be a popular place to visit, the desire for popularity should not trump the need to preserve, study, and educate. Curators, conservators, and ethnologists are more important than publicists, flashing lights, and interactive games.

Keith has been a ferocious critic of Te Papa, which despite its status as New Zealand's National Museum employs only a relatively small number of people to study and maintain its permanent collection. Te Papa displays only a tiny amount of the huge number of artefacts it owns, and seems to aim the texts on its walls at ten year-olds with short attention spans.

Defenders of Te Papa say that museums must make an effort to be more 'contemporary' and 'relevant'. They argue that the public enjoys the look of Te Papa, which with its garish carpets, noisy games, and flashing lights resembles a casino rather than a 'traditional' museum. They say that museums have to compete with movies, computer games, and amusement parks for the 'entertainment dollars' of the public.

Keith and others have argued that the Auckland and the Trust Board hired Vitali because they wanted to 'Te Papaise' Auckland's museum. Vitali's downgrading of the museum's research role, her lack of respect for its permanent collection, her experiments with technological gimmicks like light shows, and her lightweight exhibitions all make the inspiration of Te Papa clear. The criticism Vitali has received from sections of the community and the stagnating attendance figures during her reign suggest that her populism has not been as popular as she might imagine.

Back in 2006, before Vitali had set foot in Auckland, I argued that the very 'traditionalism' of the city's museum - its classical architecture, its quiet, sometimes dimly-lit rooms and corridors, its solemn memorials to the dead, its carefully but unpretentiously presented artefacts from cultures distant in time and, often, space - made it a special place for many Kiwis. In a world of e mail, cellphones and facebook, a world of twenty-four hour news cycles and fashions that last a week, 'traditional' museums can seem 'relevant' precisely because they are so out of tune with the present. They and their staff can remind us of other ways of living and thinking than our own. We may go to museums, not to be 'entertained' or to have our own prejudices confirmed, but to learn something new from artefacts and from the experts who interpret these artefacts.

The following document, which I sent to Vitali when staff were invited to offer 'feedback' on her 'restructuring process', tries to make some of the same points as my 2006 post in less romantic language, and with references to my experiences on the job. I should emphasise that the document, which prompted a rather curt reply from Vanda, was written by me alone, and doesn't necessarily reflect the views of other workers at the museum.


In her 'Proposal for Organisational Structure Change at Auckland Museum', Vanda Vitali argues that the museum's goal should be 'to inspire more than to teach'.

An interview that Vanda did with Metro magazine last year helps us to understand more clearly what she means by 'inspire'. In the interview, Vanda said that she was 'not very keen' on 'didactic' museums. She said potential museum visitors in the twenty-first century are 'bombarded with information' from new technologies like the internet. According to Vanda, people today are able to 'get their own view on things'. Rather than teaching visitors, museums should be 'inspiring' them, by involving them in debates where they test their 'interpretations' against those of others.

In her proposal for Auckland museum, Vanda echoes some of the points she made in her interview with Metro. She argues that Aucklanders are increasingly well-educated and increasingly technologically savvy, citing statistics that show two-thirds of us have an internet connection and two-fifths of us have tertiary education of some sort. Because of these changes, museums must relate to visitors in a different way. Teaching them facts is less important than it used to be; inspiring them by getting to develop and express their interpretations of the facts is more important.

The necessity of teaching

I agree wholeheartedly that museums should 'inspire' their visitors, and avoid 'talking down' to them in a patronising manner. I also agree with Vanda when she argues that museums should be centres of debate, where visitors as well as staff discuss their interpretations of the past and consider what the past can teach us about important contemporary issues.

I think Vanda is mistaken, though, when she counterposes 'teaching' to 'inspiring'. I don't think that teaching and inspiring are two opposing approaches to dealing with museum visitors, and I don't think we should have to choose or emphasise one at the expense of the other. I think that teaching is a prerequisite for inspiring.

Museum visitors can only be inspired to interpret and discuss a subject if they are well-informed about the facts surrounding that subject. Without a good grasp of the facts, they will not be able to create useful interpretations and engage in debates in an intelligent and constructive manner. I therefore think that the museum has to be careful to teach visitors about a subject, before it tries to 'inspire' them and include them in debates.

How well informed?

But how much teaching do museum visitors really need these days? Perhaps they’re well-informed enough, when they step through our doors? In her proposal for Auckland museum and in her interview with Metro, Vanda seems to suggest that, because of advances in technology and wider access to tertiary education, the public is better informed than ever before, and more able to be inspired and join in debates at museums. Vanda suggests that people today are 'bombarded' with facts, and that museums need to help them interpret these facts, rather than to teach them more facts. I want to dispute this argument by discussing the time I have spent working at our museum's Te Kakano Information Centre.

Over the last eight months I have had the pleasure of working for two days a week at Te Kakano. Te Kakano and the other Information Centres are key points of contact between the museum and the public. Staff in the Centres answer questions and help visitors use museum resources like our library and our databases.

During my time at Te Kakano Information Centre I have learned a great deal not only from my wonderful co-workers, but also from some of the fascinating visitors our museum attracts. Te Kakano was set up partly to attract more people from the Maori and Pasifika communities to the museum, and over the past eight months I have been privileged to hear the stories of members of those communities who have stopped by the Centre to use our resources and chat.

But there has been another, less satisfactory side to working at Te Kakano Information Centre. Time and time again, I have noted the lack of knowledge of some of the most basic facts about Maori history and culture displayed by many non-Polynesian visitors to the museum. To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, I'm going to quote some of the questions that visitors to Te Kakano have asked me in the last couple of weeks:

Is the design of the waka based on Viking principles?

Why did the Maoris kill all the dodos?

Is it true that the Celts were here before the Maori?

Are there any 'Mo-aris' left?

How did the Aborigines get to New Zealand from Australia?

To be fair, I should say that the fourth question was asked by an American visitor. The other questions, though, all came from Kiwis. Te Kakano staff keep an 'Enquiries Register', and it is full of questions just as absurd as the ones I have quoted (my favourite is 'Can you really make bacon out of Kiwis?').

An example of the problem

Some of the biggest misunderstandings surround the status of Maori as the tangata whenua of this country. While there are still vigorous debates about the whens and hows, not one serious scholar doubts that the ancestors of Maori were the first people to settle these islands. The concept of tangata whenua is central to Maori culture and identity, and the fact of Maori indigenity is a fundamental part of New Zealand history and part of the bedrock of the Treaty of Waitangi. Yet I firmly believe that a poll would find that most non-Polynesian visitors to the museum do not believe that Maori are the tangata whenua of this country.

I have heard visitors nominate the Celts, the Phoenicians, the Vikings, the Australian Aboriginals, and American Indians as the first Kiwis. Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding of all, though, has surrounded the Moriori people. So many visitors still believe in the myth that the Moriori were pre-Maori inhabitants of the North and South Islands that I had to create a set of answers to Frequently Asked Questions to hand out to those enquiring about the subject. This document is unavoidably didactic: using the work of experts in the subject, it discusses and tries to dispel some of the main myths about Moriori history and culture.

I’m not discussing all these misunderstandings in order to ridicule the people who suffer from them. It’s important to remember that many of the people who believe false ideas about Maori history were taught these ideas in schools. I myself can remember being taught the Moriori myth at a state primary school in the 1980s.

Nor do I think I am being pedantic or nerdy by talking about misconceptions about Maori history. I think that, far from being of merely academic importance, these misunderstandings seriously affect the quality of public debate about some of the most important issues in this country. It is notable that the myth of a pre-Maori people, for instance, is often dragged into debates about issues like the Treaty of Waitangi, Maori land rights, and tino rangatiratanga.

Vanda has suggested that fruits of technological advance like the internet have helped to make Aucklanders more ‘sophisticated’ and better-informed. Sadly, though, a lot of the myths about Maori history and pre-Maori settlement are being perpetuated by the internet. For every good, scholarly website about New Zealand history, there seem to be half a dozen run by amateurs peddling myths.

I think that Te Kakano Information Centre, the rest of the museum library, and the museum’s Maori education team play an important role in countering the sort of mistaken ideas about Maori history that I have been discussing. By teaching people about the real history of this country, and showing them resources with which they can further their own understanding, we help them get to a point where they will be able to form useful interpretations of that history, and participate in public debates in a constructive manner.

Of course, it would be much better if people never adopted mistaken ideas in the first place. If children are taught the facts about Maori history and culture, then they will not be susceptible to pseudo-history later on. This is one of the reasons why I think that Maori education team does such an important job at our museum. I have watched the team guide groups of schoolchildren through the Maori Court, informing and entertaining them at the same time. The young people who have had the privilege of being taught for an hour or two by the team will be well on the road to developing a good understanding of the real history of our country. They will be able to develop their own interpretations of that history, and participate properly in public debates about our history and its relevance to our future. They won’t fall victim to the sort of myths that are still believed by too many Kiwis.


I have agreed with Vanda Vitali’s goal of inspiring visitors to the museum, and getting them involved in exciting debates about different interpretations of the past which our museum preserves.

But worthwhile interpretations and debates have to be grounded in historical fact. Sadly, many visitors to our museum are still struggling to develop a command of the basic facts of Maori history and culture. For this reason, the pedagogical work done by Te Kakano Information Centre, the museum library as a whole, and the Maori education team is vital. This work must be maintained and extended.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why we need Judith Binney

Judith Binney is not one of New Zealand's best-known historians. She is not a bestseller like Michael King, and she has not written about contemporary social and political issues in the way that King did in the '80s and '90s and Paul Moon has frequently done in recent years. Television producers do not call and ask her to join those hastily-assembled 'panels of experts' that provide answers to 'burning questions' on public affairs programmes.

Nor is Binney a particularly prolific historian. While scholars like Moon and Jamie Belich seem intent on filling a whole wing of a library with their work, Binney has averaged one book a decade during her career.

Despite her relatively low public profile and her relatively small bibliography, Binney has exercised more influence over New Zealand's intellectual and arts communities than any other contemporary historian. She is revered by anthropologists and sociologists as well as by historians, and her work has energised poets, painters, and film-makers, not to mention museum curators. The news that Binney is lying in a coma in an Auckland hospital after being hit by a truck has upset hundreds of people who have never known her personally, but who owe her a profound intellectual and imaginative debt.

Binney's reputation rests primarily on Redemption Songs, the seven hundred page biography of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki she published in 1995. Ever since he escaped from imprisonment on Chatham Island in 1868 with the group of followers who would become his army, Te Kooti has been famous as a prophet and a rebel. Redemption Songs showed that he was also a theologian, a politician, a songwriter, an architect, and - for most of his life - a man of peace.

Binney's masterpiece was greeted by awed reviews, won the best book prize at the Montana Awards in 1996, and is unlikely to go out of print for a very long time. Redemption Songs is an unparalleled portrait of the most remarkable man ever to live on these islands, but it has extrinsic as well as intrinsic importance. It would not be going too far to say that the methodology which Binney brings to the book has the potential to change the way New Zealanders think and write about their past and about their identities.

I can perhaps best explain Binney's methodological breakthrough in Redemption Songs by taking a detour into my own current research interests - this is a blog post, not an academic monograph, so a little self-indulgence is surely permissible - and relating a story I recently heard about a couple of Binney's predecessors, Kendrick Smithyman and Keith Sinclair. Smithyman and Sinclair grew up together in the working class Auckland suburb of Point Chevalier during the Depression, and developed a love for New Zealand history. In the decades after World War Two, Sinclair became New Zealand's pre-eminent historian, while Smithyman slowly accumulated a reputation as a poet.

According to my informant, who knew both men well, neither the historian nor the poet was entirely happy with his achievement. Sinclair felt that books like his Penguin History of New Zealand might be a little 'dry', preoccupied as they were with economic trends and the personnel of governments. Sinclair wrote some middling poetry in his spare time, and he envied the imaginative leaps and bizarre details that his friend Smithyman crammed into his verses about the landscape and history of the North Island.

For his part, Smithyman could be a little jealous of his old friend's achievements as a historian. Smithyman did just as much reading of historical materials as Sinclair, poring over old newspapers, nineteenth century diaries, and dull amateur histories of Northland hamlets. At various times in his life Smithyman attempted to turn his research into essays, but he struggled to build a narrative and a set of conclusions out of the data he had hoarded. Smithyman loved to retell strange stories, ponder unpopular, half-forgotten ideas, and celebrate obscure people and places. His fascinations give his poems lustre, but leave his historical essays sinking under a weight of undifferentiated detail.

Atua Wera, Smithyman's posthumously-published epic poem of nineteenth century Hokianga, is a compendium of quotes from minor missionaries' journals, descriptions of the flight and song of certain birds native to Northland, dodgy stories heard late at night in pubs - my favourite is the one about Queen Victoria's secret visit to New Zealand to sign a second Treaty of Waitangi, and the footprint she supposedly left for posterity in a piece of clay - and speculations about the motives of such inscrutable men as the prophet (or prophets) Papahurihia and the oversexed clergyman William White. Reviewing Atua Wera in Landfall, the historian WH Oliver justly complained that the book was 'not history in the usual sense' because it lacked 'general statements'.

It seems to me that Keith Sinclair and Kendrick Smithyman represent two approaches to the study of the past which have gone unreconciled in New Zealand. On the one hand, we have the desire for a coherent account of the past which differentiates fact from non-fact and is unafraid to conclude with a few useful generalisations; on the other hand, we have the desire to recover the complex, sometimes bizarre ways in which New Zealanders have interpreted their world, as well as the innumerable events which did not become historically influential, yet which were important for the people who took part in them. The first type of history was the domain of Sinclair; the second belonged to Smithyman.

The problem of doing justice to the different ways in which the past is interpreted becomes especially serious when the Maori past comes under discussion. Because traditional Maori society was very decentralised and remembered events by telling stories rather than writing down facts, Maori tradition varies from place to place, and frequently involves narratives which cannot be considered literally. The 'Great Fleet Myth' which Percy Smith fashioned out of pieces of dozens of separate stories shows the consequences of sacrificing the complexity and contradictions of oral tradition to a rage for simplicity and symmetry.

It is not only Pakeha scholars who have struggled to reconcile complexity and coherence when they have considered New Zealand's past. A decade before Redemption Songs astonished reviewers, Witi Ihimaera published The Matriarch, a long, ambitious novel which examined the life of Te Kooti and tried to relate the prophet to the situation of Maori in the late twentieth century. Ihimaera drew on the oral histories preserved by members of a number of East Coast Maori communities, and also consulted - and in some cases plagiarised - a number of texts by Pakeha historians, but he was unable to do justice to his materials.

Instead of acknowledging the complexity of Te Kooti's story, and the many perspectives on that story, Ihimaera presented the prophet as a near-flawless figure, the heroic representative of a monolithic Maori nation oppressed by colonialism. In a splenetic but occasionally just response to The Matriarch in the London Review of Books, CK Stead pointed out that Ihimaera had edited Te Kooti's massacres of Maori civilians out of his narrative, and had presented the mostly-Maori army which pursued the prophet as a wholly Pakeha force. Ihimaera's method in The Matriarch is not all that different from the procedures of Percy Smith.

Judith Binney did not achieve the breakthrough that is Redemption Songs overnight. Her first book, which grew from a PhD thesis, was a biography of Thomas Kendall, the early Anglican missionary who 'went native' and became an ally of the Nga Puhi warlord Hongi Hika. The Legacy of Guilt is written in the self-conscious, slightly fusty style common in PhD theses, but its adroit handling of a mass of primary texts showed that the young Binney had already mastered the traditional techniques of the academic historian.

The trajectory of Binney's research changed after she took a tramping holiday in the Ureweras in the mid-70s, and found herself wandering into the semi-abandoned Tuhoe settlement of Maungapohatu, which had been the capital of the utopian state that Te Kooti's successor, the prophet Rua Kenana, had tried to build in the Tuhoe heartland at the beginning of the twentieth century. Binney sensed the history behind the overgrown gardens and listing whare of Maungapohatu, and began to conduct interviews with Tuhoe kaumatua.

In the 1970s, Binney's embrace of oral history was a departure from academic orthodoxy. Even leading figures in the study of marginalised peoples had frequently deemed oral history an untrustworthy medium for research. EP Thompson, whose masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class had helped make the study of poor and pre- or semi-literate communities respectable, always distrusted oral tradition, preferring to seek out old documents like court records and police reports and 'interrogate' them through the eyes of the oppressed. Henry Reynolds, who had begun in the '70s to wake white Australians up to the history of oppression that Aboriginal peoples had suffered, preferred slogging through nineteenth century newspapers to wielding a tape recorder.

Binney was an innovator, then, when she published Mihaia, a short biography of Rua Kenana, in 1979. The book draws extensively on interviews, and includes much material that had previously been off-limits to non-Tuhoe New Zealanders, but it is deliberately cautious in its treament of this material. The firm assertions about Thomas Kendall's intellectual and moral universe which were a feature of The Legacy of Guilt do not find their counterparts in Mihaia.

Perhaps Binney was still struggling in 1979 with the question of how to reconcile the messy richness of oral history with the tidy hierachies of detail and confident generalisations common to academic history. How could Binney do justice to stories about Rua Kenana's discovery of a huge diamond on the summit of Tuhoe's sacred mountain, or of Te Kooti's riding of his famous white horse straight up a cliff, without either treating such stories literally or else dismissing them as mere colourful embroideries of history?

In an essay published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1984, Binney found a way beyond the contradictions of academic and oral history. In 'Myth and Explanation in the Ringatu Tradition' Binney took some of the stories and symbols associated with Te Kooti and Rua Kenana and showed how, even if they seemed bewildering to outsiders, they were easily interpretable within the culture of the iwi who had created them.

By entering the intellectual universe of the people who created and transmitted the stories and symbols she was studying, Binney eschewed a common Western approach to the religious life of indigenous and pre-industrial peoples. In early works of ethnography like James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the fantastic stories and magical rites of pre-industrial peoples are considered as primitive attempts to analyse and manipulate the environment - that is, as primitive approximations of what we call science. Frazer's approach to myth and ritual assumed that every human society thought in the same way as the industrialised West, and therefore inevitably treated non-Western peoples patronisingly.

Though Binney rejected the Eurocentrism Frazer represents, she did not simply invert it, by adopting the sort of epistemological relativism that gives a free pass to truth-claims made in non-Western cultures, on the grounds that 'belief in reality confers reality'. Binney does not claim that Te Kooti really rode his horse up a cliff, or that Rua Kenana really found a diamond on the top of a mountain; instead, she explains that these stories express important truths - about Te Kooti's elusiveness during the years he waged guerrilla war, about Rua Kenana's appointment as the successor to the great prophet - for the people who hear and transmit them.

In Redemption Songs, Binney follows Te Kooti across Wharekauri and Te Ika a Maui, describing battles he fought, sermons he gave, verses he sang, and meeting houses he raised, and interpreting his activities through the stories that are still told about him. The meta-narrative of the prophet's life is balanced against the proliferating mini-narratives told by kaumatua in villages and little towns - Muriwai, Matawhereo, Ohura, Waituhi - which once saw great events.

Although Binney's method is relatively easy to describe, it is immensely difficult to turn into a seven hundred page book. As EP Thompson liked to point out, neither history nor the study of history can be reduced to a formula. Thompson believed that, no matter how well-intentioned or theoretically informed he or she is, a historian must ultimately rely upon his or her ability to make continual small judgements - judgements about what source to cite, what detail to flourish, what attitude to take to two conflicting interpretations of an event - that cannot be pre-determined by a set of rules.

To read Redemption Songs is to be impressed again and again by Binney's judgement, as she handles her material. Consider, for instance, the following passage, chosen at random, which describes Te Kooti's flight into the King Country, whose rulers King Tawhiao and Rewi Maniapoto were not keen to host him, after his defeat at the battle of Te Porere near Tongariro in October 1869:

Te Kooti had fled Taumaranui. Three days later Topia, Te Keepa and the combined force of 600 men finally reached the settlement, to find him gone.

Staff-sergeant Samuel Austin, who was with Topia's expedition, said that they were told by some women that Te Kooti had with him 90 fighting men, and about 200 women and children. He had also announced that he was going to the King, but after a short distance he had 'changed his route and took another direction'. This remark may well give the historical context for the oral story which Henare Tuwhangai narrated concerning Te Kooti's failure at Taumaranui. This story, in its structure, is very similar to that of Te Ra Karepa's earlier challenge, related in the previous chapter. This time, however, it concerns the mana of Rewi Maniapoto and a challenge at Taumaranui.

Te Kooti went to Taringamotu, a little settlement north of Taumaranui...and raised up two posts. One he named Rewi, and the other he named for himself. He ordered his men to fire at the post named for Rewi, and all 12 volleys missed. But the post he named for himself was smashed by the firing squad. The omens determined, he went

Here Binney moves carefully between her fact-based meta-narrative, an exposition of an oral tradition relating to Te Kooti's appearance in the King Country, and an interpretation of that tradition which is neither literal nor dismissive. Pursued by Crown forces, Te Kooti travels into the King Country, which has been off-limits to Pakeha since it became a sanctuary for Tawhiao and Rewi Maniapoto at the end of the Waikato War. Te Kooti talks of meeting the King - he often talked of making an alliance with the King movement and opening another front in his war - and goes to Taumaranui, an important part of the King Country, but there, according to a local story, his mana is tested, and found wanting beside that of Rewi Maniapoto, the host of Tawhiao and the ultimate authority in the region. Te Kooti retreats, and his long journey through Te Ika a Maui continues. Binney manages to combine historical fact with allegory without ever confusing the two, or disrupting the flow of her book.

Binney's prose style is an important part of the achievement of Redemption Songs. Her sentences stretch out elegantly, as their main sections are carefully introduced and qualified by subordinate clauses, but they are never confused or showy. There is a calmness to Binney's writing which is perhaps appropriate, given the dramatic and sometimes fantastic stories she is telling.

Redemption Songs is a book about a nineteenth century Maori prophet, but its method makes it very relevant to twenty-first century New Zealand. Binney's transcendence of the barrier between the objective and subjective sides of our past -between the tidy narrative of Sinclair's Penguin History and the rich chaos of Smithyman's Atua Wera - suggests ways in which we might overcome some of the confusions and divisions in our contemporary culture.

We might, for instance, be able to use Binney's method to find a way beyond the dismal 'Culture Wars' which pit conservative, religious Kiwis against their secular, liberal counterparts when issues like the separation of church and state and the content of school curricula are raised for public debate. Might Redemption Songs show us how to acknowledge the importance of religious stories and symbols to our history, and even to our identity, without forcing us to take these stories and symbols literally?

Is there a lesson, too, in the way that Redemption Songs tells the stories and affirms the mana of the Maori who fought against Te Kooti? By telling the stories of kupapa, yet refusing to treat these stories as the only true account of the war against Te Kooti, Binney finds a constructive alternative to Witi Ihimaera's simplifications. Can we not learn from Binney's approach when we discuss Pakeha soldiers and settlers, and thus allow contemporary Pakeha a measured pride in their history?

Binney's just-released book consumed much of her energy over the last decade, and it certainly appears to compare in size and scope to Redemption Songs. It is a tragedy that Binney is lying in hospital only a few days after the launch of Encircled Lands, instead of helping guide us into her book, and through another part of our country's history. Get well soon, Professor Binney - we need you.