Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why The Sun is afraid of poetry

During my PhD research trip to Britain in 2005 I became addicted to The Sun. I would arrange to meet British friends and research contacts in pubs in the East End of London or in Hull; they would arrive to find me nursing a mug of Tetley's Ale and ogling the inner pages of Rupert Murdoch's notorious tabloid.

It sounded unconvincing then, and will probably sound unconvincing now, but the truth is that I didn't become an avid reader of The Sun because of the page three girls, or the celebrity tittle-tattle, or the reactionary right-wing politics. What fascinated me was the manner in which the paper's articles were constructed. The Sun's journalists - the term seems almost inappropriate - built their stories out of simple, active voice sentences linked together three at a time in paragraphs that had the terseness of bullet points. A story rarely consisted of more than half a dozen paragraphs. The vocabulary of the paper was determinedly concrete: abstract nouns and words of more than three syllables were hard to find. The paper's editorials seldom departed from the strict rules that governed the rest of its prose.

Critics of The Sun often talk about the way the paper 'argues' or 'makes the case' for right-wing politics and philistine, xenophobic attitudes. The fact is, though, that the paper almost never engages in argument. More baroque publications of the right - the Wall Street Journal, for example, or The Times - are filled with opinion pieces which advance, however tendentiously, detailed arguments in favour of tax breaks for the rich, wars in the Middle East, and other currently favoured policies of conservatives, but The Sun does not bother with such trifles. The paper offers assertion after assertion, and carefully selected fact after carefully selected fact, without bothering to attach them to arguments.

There is a logic to The Sun's procedures. To argue explicitly for a worldview is to make one's audience aware of the fact that there are alternatives to that view, and to suggest that argument is an appropriate response to ideological differences. The Sun prefers to immerse its readers in its worldview, and it accomplishes this feat with an efficiency that is almost spectacular.

In his last novel, George Orwell imagined an effort to 'reform' English by greatly reducing the language's vocabulary and eliminating ambiguity from its remaining words. The 'Newspeak' of Ninety Eighty-Four is distinguished by its precision and concreteness, and it is these qualities which make users of the language unable to think creatively, let alone subversively.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was intended not as a prophecy but as a satire of the postwar world, including the capitalist countries of the West. Orwell ridiculed US consumer culture, for example, in his descriptions of his heroine Julia's work at a ‘factory’ which mass-produced porn novels for the ‘proles’. The dreary austerity of post-war Britain was satirised in the Chestnut café, where characters drank watery gin and smoked tasteless cigarettes, and the increasingly remote leadership of the post-war Labour Party, with its tendency to take on the trappings and habits of the British bourgeoisie, was lampooned in Orwell’s description of the division between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ sections of the party of Ingsoc. It is a pity that it is only Orwell’s enemies on the left, namely the Soviet Union and the Communist Parties loyal to Moscow, which have been popularly identified as the targets of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

They may have failed to influence popular perceptions of Ninety Eighty-Four, but many Orwell scholars have identified Western journalists, as well as Stalinist propagandists, as one of the targets of Orwell's discussions of Newspeak. Orwell worked for many years in the newspaper business, and was employed by the BBC during World War Two. He knew how easily a few strokes of a subeditor's pen could change the emphasis, and sometimes even the whole meaning, of a news report. He had a horror of philistine editors, and of political censorship. All satire involves exaggeration, and Orwell's concept of Newspeak seems like an exaggerated but fundamentally truthful portrait of the methods of the bureaucrats of the word that the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four so often had to deal with.

It seemed to me in 2005 that The Sun , with its carefully circumscribed vocabulary and relentless concreteness, was working unwittingly towards the actualisation of Orwell's Newspeak. When I expressed this fear to friends, they tended to shrug their shoulders, and to ask me why I bothered to read the paper in the first place. Did they have a point? If Sun readers want to wallow in ignorance, isn't that their business? Why should the rest of us worry?

I think we should worry, because The Sun is only an extreme example of a much wider tendency towards the instrumentalisation of language and the elimination of the complexity and nuance that makes good writing, and good thinking, possible. In a long article for The Atlantic in 2008, the technosceptic Nicholas Carr suggests that market forces and the internet are conspiring to change the way we read, the way we think, and even the way our brains are wired. Citing neurologists as well as literary critics, Carr argues that the internet is making us 'shallow' rather than 'deep' readers and thinkers, as we skip merrily from one online text to another. Attention spans are shrinking.

Carr rounds on Google as a symbol of all that is wrong with the way that capitalism is using the internet. He explains that Google sees information as a kind of commodity, 'a utilitarian resource that can be wired and processed with industrial efficiency'. Google operates as though the mind is a mechanical rather than a creative device, and consequently has no place for the 'fuzziness of contemplation'. For Google, ambiguity is not an 'opening for insight' but a 'bug to be fixed'. Like the architects of Newspeak, the executives of Google dream of making our language perfectly precise.

In Ninety Eighty-Four, Orwell opposes the half-forgotten richness of poetry to the grotesque precision of Newspeak. Winston Smith, the novel's rather uncertain hero, tries to retain a fragment of an old poem in his mind, as a sort of good luck charm, and wakes from a dream of rebellion and the open countryside with the mysterious name 'Shakespeare' on his lips. Today poetry, with its frequent refusal of explicit statement and its reliance on the complex chords of meaning that words can strike, seems particularly at odds with the instrumentalisation of language represented in different ways by The Sun and by Google. Good poetry cannot be skimmed on a screen, or condensed into a slogan or search word: it must be read 'deeply', or not at all.

Recently David Yelland, who had the dubious distinction of editing The Sun between 1998 and 2003, published an article in which he confessed to two scandalous weaknesses. Yelland revealed that he was a daily drunk during his tenure at The Sun. He often woke in the morning unable to remember the editorial he had written the night before, and he was once so drunk he turned up to a meeting with Rupert Murdoch wearing two shirts and two ties. Yelland explains his drunkeness by saying that he was unhappy with The Sun's politics, and with much of its content. Getting tanked was his way of coping with the xenophobia, the cheesey page three girls, and the relentless snooping on beleagured celebrities like Kate Moss.

Yelland's other confession is more surprising. During his darkest days at The Sun, he turned to poetry as well as the bottle for succour:

I know it sounds mad but I began to take huge comfort in poetry, my first love, and would often reach for one of the slim volumes I kept hidden at the back of my office. I felt a love of T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Keats was not wholly compatible with being editor of The Sun.

Indeed I once hid a copy of
The Waste Land inside my own paper - had it been Playboy, no one would have batted an eyelid.

Yelland's memoir appeared in the Daily Mail, a tabloid which rivals The Sun for self-righteous philistinism, and so a few of his readers might have shaken their heads at his secret literary excursions. Winston Smith, though, would understand Yelland's attraction to poetry, as well as his furtiveness. For Smith and for Yelland, poetry offers, in its very recalcitrance, its very refusal to be controlled and directed by subeditors and propagandists, a subversive example. As TS Eliot wrote, in the opening section of The Waste Land:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Indian eugenics: a history lesson for David Garrett

Since he scrambled into parliament on the Act list in 2008, David Garrett has courted redneck voters and upset liberals with a series of pronouncements about crime, race relations, the family, and the scourge of 'political correctness'. Garrett left many of his supporters behind, though, when he recently advocated the sterilisation of New Zealanders convicted of crimes against children. Writing on his own website and in the comments boxes at David Farrar's Kiwiblog, Garrett argued that child abusers should be paid five thousand dollars to undergo sterilisation.

The maverick MP's argument alienated right-wingers as surely as it did liberals. Conservative Christians thought sterilisation seemed uncomfortably close to abortion; other right-wingers asked why criminals should be rewarded for their behaviour; and the more thoughtful members of Act asked how Garrett's scheme would actually protect children, given that many abusers do not target their own progeny. Act leader Rodney Hide was soon forced to distance himself from Garrett's proposal.

Although Garrett's argument for sterilisation has received considerable attention, the extraordinary historical example he used to support it has been ignored by commentators. In one of his comments at Kiwiblog, Garrett claimed a noble precedent for his proposed policy:

For those who think this is a silly suggestion, the Indians did it 30 years ago (the reward was a transistor radio for every man who had a vasectomy) for population control reasons. I don’t recall why the programme was eventually abandoned.

A couple of years ago I took Garrett to task for the comprehensive ignorance of Tuhoe history revealed in an opinion piece he wrote for the New Zealand Herald. The man's latest exercise in historiography does nothing to increase my confidence in his scholarship.

Garrett's remark at Kiwiblog is a reference to the 'family planning' programme adopted in India during the mid-70s, when Indira Gandhi imposed a dictatorship on the country. In the middle of 1975 Prime Minister Gandhi was convicted of corruption, and ordered to give up her seat in parliament; instead of following the rule of law, she declared a national emergency, jailed more than fifty opposition MPs and thousands of opposition activists, gagged the press, banned strikes, and began to rule by decree. Sidelining many senior members of her own Congress Party, Indira made her youngest son Sanjay her effective second-in-command. Gandhi tried to legitimise her dictatorship by referring to the wave of strikes that India had suffered in the first half of the '70s, and the Maoist insurgency that was destabilising several states in the east of the country. Her assumption of absolute power was supported by much of India's business sector, by the United States, and also by the Soviet Union, which valued a strong India as a counterweight to China.

Gandhi attempted to use her dictatorship to effect a rapid 'modernisation' of a country she considered dangerously 'backward'. Her modernisation programme had progressive goals - universal literacy, the elimination of slums in the big cities, a more equal distribution of land in the countryside - but it was pursued in brutal and quixotic ways. Slums were eliminated not by the provision of new and better housing, but with bulldozers. Production was raised by banning strikes.

The most notorious part of the Gandhi regime's 'modernisation' programme was the 'family planning' campaign organised and fronted by Sanjay Gandhi. Advances in health care and the end of the mass famines that had marked British rule meant that India's population had increased markedly since independence in 1947. Indira Gandhi decided that population growth must be slowed to cut down demand for domestic food production, and to allow more exports of rice and other crops. She ignored the fact that, in the absence of any real social security system, many Indian parents saw large families as an essential source of labour and as a promise of support in old age.

When small cash payments and petty consumer goods failed to induce large numbers of Indian men to undergo vasectomies, the Gandhi regime turned to force. Men were snatched off the street, pinned down in mobile operating theatres, and sterilised, sometimes without anaesthetic. The activities of Sanjay Gandhi's 'vasectomy squads' provoked nationwide protests, and in October 1976 police opened on fire on anti-sterilisation marches in the Uttar Pradesh towns of Muzzafarnagar and Sultanpur, killing seventy people.

The Indian 'Emergency', as the Gandhi dictatorship is usually rather euphemistically called, was most famously described by Salman Rushdie in his novel Midnight's Children. Rushdie presented Indira Gandhi as 'the Widow', a remote but terrifying tyrant who betrays the legacy of her father Jawaharlal Nehru, the leader of India's independence movement and its first Prime Minister.

Another great writer who described the tragedy of the Indian Emergency was the British historian and political activist EP Thompson. During December 1976 and the first half of January 1977 Thompson circumnavigated India, giving a series of lectures in universities from New Delhi to Calcutta to Kerala to Bombay. Thompson's father had worked for many years as a Methodist missionary in India, and had been a supporter of the country's independence movement. Even after the Thompson family returned from India to Britain, they kept in touch with old friends, and as a child EP Thompson met both Nehru, who gave him cricket lessons in the backyard of his Oxford home, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Because of his family's connections to India and to Nehru, EP Thompson was treated as an honoured guest when he arrived in December 1975. He soon realised, though, that something was very wrong with the country Nehru's daughter ruled. Armed police patrolled the campuses where Thompson delivered his lectures, and students and staff whispered of arrests, beatings, and even killings. When he visited a university in Bengal, Thompson was shown the spot where a Maoist student had recently been summarily executed by police; at another university the distinguished visitor was disturbed to see a student being arrested after asking him a vaguely political question during his lecture.

Thompson was an inveterate dissident and an inveterate researcher, and it was not long before he was holding clandestine meetings with pro-democracy activists, and gathering information about Indira Gandhi's dictatorship. Towards the end of his time in India Thompson noticed that he was being followed by police; he became, by his own admission, 'somewhat paranoid', and perhaps counted himself lucky to be able to escape the country in the middle of January 1976.

As soon as he returned to Britain Thompson set to work on the fifty-page manuscript he called 'Six Weeks in India'. Marked 'Strictly Confidential' and circulated to trusted and politically influential contacts like the Labour Cabinet Minister Michael Foot, Thompson's account of Emergency India is a vivid and meticulous indictment of Indira Gandhi's rule, full of data about strikes and harvests as well as descriptions of riots and arrests.

'Six Weeks in India' describes how the programme of 'voluntary' birth control that Sanjay Gandhi led quickly became a crude instrument of eugenics, as slum dwellers and political dissidents were targetted for sterilisation. Thompson recalls meeting one young man who had been picked up by the police for his political activities, forcibly sterilised in prison, and then dumped on the street. In another part of his text, Thompson related an anecdote which captured the popular response to Indian eugenics:

In Calcutta two pick-pockets were taken up by the police and were being driven in a police-van to prison. Held up by the traffic they had the presence of mind to shout out to the surrounding crowd, 'vasectomy!, vasectomy!' Instantly the crowd rose, liberated the prisoners, and beat up the police.

At the centre of 'Six Weeks in India' was Thompson's recognition of the bizarre and apparently contradictory aspects of Indira Gandhi's dictatorship. Gandhi was backed by Washington and happily repressed trade unions and strikes, and yet her regime used left-wing rhetoric, and she counted on the support of both the Soviet Union and its local proxy, the massive and powerful Communist Party of India. Both American and Soviet advisors had Indira's ear.

Thompson had left the Communist Party of Great Britain in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and had ever since been a critic of both Washington and Moscow; he was, then, ideally equipped to recognise the convergence of Stalinist rhetoric and unbridled capitalism that was occurring in Emergency India. Thompson believed that Stalinist bureaucrats and apostles of American-style capitalism had in common a contempt for ordinary people and traditional ways of life, and a desire to 'modernise' Indian society by any means necessary:

It is necessary to drive home this point about the coincidence in style and even in ulterior assumptions between some Western ‘modernising theory’ and orthodox (Moscow) theory...Both see ‘modernity’ and ‘progress’ as being imposed upon nations by an elite with the ‘know-how’ of history: both represent the outlook of ‘modernised’ urban intelligentsias; both tend to place priority upon capital-intensive heavy-industrial, or state-bureaucratic developments, either to generate the pre-conditions for ‘take-off’ or to supply an industrial ‘basis’ upon which a superstructure will supposedly arise. Both have a mentality of planning from above (the jet-setting, the three-weeks industrial consultant from America, the Soviet ideologue and technologist)...both desire a disciplined workforce.

In 1976 Thompson's argument for a convergence between capitalism and elements of Stalinism must have seemed radical; today, when the government of China mixes Maoist slogans with neo-liberal economics, and when the Putin regime rehabilitates Stalin whilst enriching a new ruling class, it seems astonishingly prescient. In 2005 I discovered a copy of 'Six Weeks in India' in an archive in Hull, and in my forthcoming book on EP Thompson from Manchester University Press I quote and discuss this long-forgotten text at length. If David Garrett would like to learn something about the period in history he so happily holds up as a model, then I am happy to post him a copy of 'Six Weeks'.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Art in a fortress town

Hamilton is the youngest of New Zealand's larger cities. Where Christchurch, Dunedin, and Wellington were the products of careful if not always skillful planning, and Auckland grew chaotically but peacefully in its early decades, Hamilton was improvised by an invading army. After pushing the forces of King Tawhiao out of their cultivations and kainga in the Waikato in 1863 and early 1864, the British commander General Cameron decided, possibly arbitrarily, to garrison some of his troops on the flood-prone stretch of the Waikato River the Tainui people had given the unprepossessing name Kirikiriroa, or long stretch of gravel.

Many of the soldier-settlers who established farms around the new centre struggled with a waterlogged landscape, with the virtual absence of roads, and with a lack of capital. For at least two decades, an invasion from the Maori-controlled land to the south of the city also remained a possibility, at least in the minds of its inhabitants, who formed themselves into militia and dug networks of new redoubts. In their study of Hamilton's Anglican cathedral, Gabrielle and Paul Day lament what they see as the city's undistinguished early history:

Conceived in armed conflict, casually and negligently nurtured by business and government bodies in faraway Auckland, Hamilton was, for the first fifteen years, a quagmire of deprivation, poverty, and natural disaster.

Hamilton, and the central Waikato in general, have often had a reputation for dullness, and for a certain moral puritanism. The struggle to impose and consolidate imperial rule over the area is perhaps reflected in the way the place has presented itself to the world. The grids of streets named after British monarchs and generals, the picket fences, the monotonous low churches, the prim poplars standing like sentries beside farms established on confiscated land - all can be seen as ways of affirming and normalising conquest.

St Peter's Cathedral is a building which reflects the violent and improvisational origins of Hamilton. The seat of Anglicanism in the city is located on Pukerangiora, a low hill close to the western shore of the Waikato. In 1863 a redoubt was established on Pukerangiora, and the Fourth Waikato Regiment was housed there. The first church raised on the site quickly burnt to the ground, and in 1881 the fledgling Hamilton City Council decided to meet two needs at once by building a town hall which could also be used for Anglican worship. The council's willingness to fuse civic and religious matters reflects the extent to which Anglicanism was intertwined with the state in the colonial Waikato. In 1863 the church's leader, Bishop Augustus Selwyn, had marched into the region with the army of General Cameron, offering his blessings and prayers to Cameron's soldiers. The churches Selwyn raised in lower Waikato hamlets like Mauku and Pokeno were given thick walls and gun slots, so that they could double as blockhouses during raids by Maori guerrillas.

In 1915, the foundations of St Peter's were laid over the deep trenches of the Fourth Regiment's old redoubt. Most of New Zealand's early Anglican cathedrals were wooden gothic constructions, but the building on Pukerangiora was made using ferro-concrete, and given a fifteenth century Norfolk style. The church has been extended and redecorated a number of times since 1915.

It is difficult not to be impressed by the complicated ugliness of St Peter's. The building lacks the flint walls, the symmetrical proportions, and the round towers which make the churches of the Norfolk countryside graceful. Its grey concrete echoes that of the much larger police station which rises from the base of Pukerangiora, and the faux-military design of the square belltower it gained in 1933 increases its oppressive feel. The stained glass windows of St Peter's lack any of the local imagery found in many far older Anglican churches. Most of them show lumbering saints and violent golden-bearded kings, but one features a Chinese, an African, and an American Indian child finding peace in the light of Christ. Each child is a stereotype: the American Indian wears a headpiece of feathers; the African is nearly naked; and the Chinese boy appears to wear a Confucian suit. The real history of ethnic conflict which created Hamilton is nowhere alluded to inside St Peter's. Like the picket fences of the town and the straight rows of exotic trees on the farms of the central Waikato, the church seems to be an attempt to impose a particular and peculiarly unstable version of reality on its visitors. Its very awkwardness and ugliness hint at its motives.

Across the road from St Peter's, at the bottom of Pukerangiora, the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery is hosting a major retrospective by Richard Lewer, an artist born and raised in Hamilton. Lewer's hometown has had a difficult relationship with some of its more artistic progeny. Frank Sargeson, for example, grew up in Hamilton, but became disgusted with the conservatism of many of its citizens, and chose to spend his adult life elsewhere. A few years ago the city returned the snub, by rejecting a proposal to put a statue of the great writer on its main street.

Lewer was raised deep in suburban Hamilton, in a rugby-mad Roman Catholic family, before leaving to attend the University of Auckland's Elam Art School. Although he has continued to live away from the Waikato, Lewer has returned to the place compulsively in his art. For Lewer, the Hamilton of his childhood, with its skidmarked playing fields, mortgaged villas, and all-knowing priests, is a place of mystery and wonder, like Chagall's Vitebsk or Stanley Spencer's Cookham.

Lewer was inspired by McCahon as a schoolboy, and he has McCahon's hankering for the mythic. Like McCahon, he often works with difficult materials - enamel paint that sets quickly and resists nuance, and surfaces like boards or pre-used canvases - and he aims to simplify his depictions of his subjects so as to bring out what is essential in them. Like McCahon, Lewer wants his myths to come with the ugliness and chaos of the real world, and is therefore often torn between realism and something more visionary. But where McCahon usually gazed away from the human world, to the hills and bush and sea, Lewer finds his subjects in the people and institutions of an unfashionable provincial town. One of the many highlights of Lewer's retrospective is a series of paintings of Andy Dalton, Richard Loe and other rugby players whose careers began in the eighties, on the edge of the sport's professional era. Lewer's players are heroic, but they often seem in pain. Sticky with mud and blood, they stand angrily, or charge across empty patches of grass like wounded bulls. The small size of the canvases they inhabit increases their pathos and their distance from us.

The small, almost delicate rugby portraits contrast with the large and messily complicated paintings about unsolved murders which Lewer has made in white on deep green cloth apparently taken from pool tables. With their meandering diagrams, sketches of apparently significant objects, and crude maps, these works are as chaotic and as paranoid as the late-night bar talk of a conspiracy theorist. They are the products of a mythographer who declines to award his myths a coherence and a beauty that the events they reflect do not possess. St Peter's Cathedral may be an exercise in distortion and evasion, but the Richard Lewer show across the road offers something very different.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Refuting the fantasists

John McDonald, the editor of the weekly Dargaville Online newsletter, recently had a lesson in the dangers of false information. At the beginning of this month Noel Hilliam, a controversial amateur historian and occasional grave-robber who lives near Dargaville, approached McDonald and claimed to have won the prestigious 2010 Senior New Zealander of the Year Award. Hilliam produced an apparently-genuine certificate to back up his claim, and Dargaville Online was soon celebrating the local boy's feat on its front page.

After this blog pointed out that Hilliam had not, in fact, won the Senior New Zealand Award - the honour had gone to South Island philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar - New Zealand Awards co-ordinator Grant McCabe contacted McDonald and asked him to withdraw his claims. To his credit, McDonald has placed a retraction in the latest issue of Dargaville Online.

Tim Murphy, the editor of the venerable New Zealand Herald, might smirk at the notion that that the recent experiences of the humble Dargaville Online could hold any lessons for him. The fact is, though, that the Herald's Thursday editorial in defence of outgoing Auckland War Memorial Museum Director Vanda Vitali was just as just as much the product of misinformation as John McDonald's recent celebration of Noel Hilliam. Murphy and his senior reporter John Roughan had a private audience with the embattled Vitali during one of her last days in power, and the editorial that ran last Thursday is full of the unctuous rhetoric and fact-free assertions that have long typified Vitali's self-defences.

Without offering up a skerrick of evidence, the Herald claimed that Vitali captured the imagination of the public and 'made the museum a 'cool' destination', and warned that her departure might lead to the institution becoming a 'fusty' and unpopular place. The Herald did accept that Vitali had been involved in a series of disputes with the Museum Board that appointed her, with staff, and with museum patrons, but it suggested that these might not have been her fault. Vitali's legacy is, the Herald asserted, largely positive, and any problems she has left behind can be resolved 'with a little finesse'.

Luckily for readers of the Herald, Thursday's editorial has been speedily discredited by one of the paper's own investigative journalists. In a feature article in today's Herald, Geoff Cumming draws together some of the data and history that were ignored by last Thursday's editorial, and makes some bleak observations about Vitali's record and her legacy.

Cumming's article opens with the opinion of Bob Harvey, who echoes the facetious line of the Herald's editorial, but Cumming quickly exposes the Waitakere mayor's talk of 'extraordinarily fine exhibitions' and 'crowds around the block' for the nonsense that it is. Cumming shows that the numbers of visitors to the museum grew rapidly in the years before Vitali's arrival, and then dropped during her reign. The decline appears to be continuing: visitor numbers for this January were down a quarter on last year's figures. Cumming notes Vitali's failure to bring a single major interational exhibition to the museum during her reign, and points out that several of the exhibitions that she rejected became hits at other New Zealand venues. Cumming produces a series of eyewitnesses, including the author of this blog and many much more distinguished people, to testify to Vitali's appalling people skills, sublime ignorance of New Zealand culture and history, and contempt for such 'fusty' museum practices as the acquisition and conservation of artefacts.

Geoff Cumming's article should ring alarm bells for Vitali's remaining apologists, including the author of last Thursday's editorial. Now that one of his own reporters has shown up his editorial line, shouldn't Tim Murphy learn a lesson from John McDonald, realise he was the victim of a con job, and retract his words?

[My earlier posts on Vanda Vitali and the Auckland War Memorial Museum can be found here, here and here.]

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Michael Arnold on Vietnam, corruption, poetry, marriage, and indigenous culture

The latest issue of the long-running Kiwi literary journal brief is the first to have been edited outside New Zealand. Michael Arnold, who has been the boss at brief since 2008, assembled the hundred or so pages of issue number 39 from his new home in Vietnam, using texts fired in his direction by writers domiciled in places as disparate as Mexico, Singapore, Edinburgh, Hong Kong, Mexico, and, of course, Panmure. I've asked the hard-working and supernaturally patient Mr Arnold a few questions about the new issue, and about life in Vietnam.

SH: Michael, what are you doing in Vietnam, and how hard was the long-distance editing job?

MA: More difficult than I imagined! I came to Saigon to get married, and thought that it would be easy to organise everything from here - little did I know that Vietnamese weddings are such detailed affairs that working on a poetry magazine was made next to impossible. I did manage to prod the writers for their feedback one by one - I like to make sure everyone's satisfied with their contributions and the way they look before the magazine goes out, because brief is really about writers putting their more experimental work out for peer review, and everyone wants to look their best...

SH: Are you investigating the Vietnamese literary scene? Do you find any parallels between culture in your current home and the situation of the arts in New Zealand?

MA: I have been told on more than one occasion that Vietnamese people don't write, because they don't read. While it may seem condescending, there is a social context to the observation. Literary and artistic culture have taken a back seat during times of war and desperate economic development. Saigon is very much a commercial town, and as far as I know there are virtually no libraries. Bookstores carry few literary titles in Vietnamese, and perhaps it's interesting that there are relatively few children's titles for emergent readers in Vietnamese either. Hanoi, the political and cultural capital, may be a little better off. I have read of some work being done with Vietnam's heroic poetess Ho Xuan Huong, who is considered to have been years ahead of her time in that she wrote explicitly and frankly about sexual themes - perhaps not unlike our Jack Ross. She represents modern Vietnamese writing, although she lived over 200 years ago now - as since her, Vietnamese literature seems to have been rather quiet.

Recent Vietnamese visual art likewise seems fairly derivative to me, and it's been near impossible to find any local classical music here - instrumental CDs are invariably pop hits played on a monochord zither with synth backing. I tried to organise a classical ensemble to play at our wedding, but when my fiancée visited the Conservatory of Music, the lecturer was taken by surprise at this abnormal request and asked if her husband was a foreigner. We ended up with a sleazy covers band singing Chinese pop hits and the Carpenters.

American professor John Balaban, who translates Ho Xuan Huong's poetry, passed on the number of a local who works with modern Vietnamese verse - but my earnest emails went unanswered. No luck in breaking in yet.

People have insinuated that the government is to blame for squashing the creative arts here. Having experienced Communist China, I can safely say that the administration here is far worse than the somewhat feeble 'iron fist' of the more bumbling Communist Party of China, which tries to cover up its awkwardness with a veneer of strength. The government here doesn't even make the effort to mask its corruption - there are signs in government facilities telling people where bribes can be paid! It's often said that while the Chinese government has made awful mistakes, the Vietnamese have flatly betrayed the ideals of the revolution and are quite happily enjoying their power. That's what locals tell me. Whatever the case actually is, there's little obvious support for the Arts.

SH: You lived in China for many years, learned Mandarin, and became something of a Sinologist. Now you find yourself in country with a history of troubled with relations with China - a country which fought a war with its gigantic northern neighbour only three decades ago. What sort of reactions do Vietnamese people have, when they learn about your long association with China? Is Sinophobia confined to Vietnam's ruling elite, or is it more widespread?

MA: The slang term for foreigner here, day, is surprisingly neutral, whereas its equivalents in almost every other country in the region (amor, falang, barang, guailo) are derogatory. The slang term for Chinese, dao, is considered quite insulting, and ethnic Chinese here insist on being referred to as hoa, the more mellifluous term derived from the Chinese language. That being said, the Vietnamese have a history of forgiving and embracing the various countries that have invaded them (including New Zealand, if you count our support of the American war) after they've beaten them.

Vietnamese culture is profoundly influenced by China, and most Vietnamese consider Chinese scholarship as something laudable, and are genuinely encouraging about my experience in studying Mandarin, telling me that I should be finding Vietnamese easier to master with its many naturalised Chinese terms - which is sadly not my experience.

SH: Vietnam is a country with scores of ethnic minorities. Have you had experiences with these groups? I hear that some of them, like the Cham group, are Austronesians, and thus have a connection, albeit distant, with the Polynesian peoples of the South Pacific.

MA: I visited a Cham region just yesterday, and a couple of weeks ago I was in the Central Highlands and saw some performers from the Degar Hill Tribes - it seems to be the case that if the minority groups haven't made a show out of themselves, then they're already well assimilated by the dominant Kinh people. The Cham certainly fall into that category, with little to show for their former nation aside from a few pretty festivals and some very nice old Cambodian-style pagodas. Visitors here familiar with South Pacific peoples often remark on little similarities - things like weaving designs and costumes - and occasionally you pass someone who happens to look very Polynesian. Not very scientific observations of course. I'm very interested in the Hmong people. They claim a sovereign territory in the region that sadly isn't recognised by any other nation, and their capital is in Vietnam. The history of the Secret War in Laos is particularly fascinating, as is the story of the revolution and assassination of Hmong leader Pa Chay Vue in the 'War of the Insane' against French colonial rule. So while it's noted that the Vietnamese have always managed eventual victories over foreign oppression in the end, things haven't been so good for the Hmong Vietnamese people.

SH: The new issue of brief is the first to receive funding from Creative New Zealand. The journal's founder, Alan Loney, used to scorn official funding, claiming that the people who administered it were biased against the sort of avant-garde literature he wanted to promote. Why have you taken a different approach to Loney's? What difference has funding made to brief?

MA: We're all less scornful about CNZ funding now we've actually managed to get it. We tried to make a solid case that the writing that usually finds it way into brief has by now proved its salt as a viable strand of New Zealand literature that's not going away, and we seem to have been successful in convincing the funding body that this is indeed the case. brief has a certain history now, so it's hard to argue that we're not taking this writing seriously.

I think that the writers served by brief are very fond of the magazine, but that at the same time turning that affection into practical, financial support has been difficult. brief has had its moments where the magazine might have fallen flat for lack of time and money. My concern as editor has been to find some kind of solution to make sure brief survives indefinitely, simply because I'm a fan of many of its contributors and I'd like to see them continue to publish this kind of work in this kind of platform. Fortunately CNZ has given us the chance to breathe easier and try to give the writers a better readership and a little more notoriety.

SH: The cover of the new issue of brief is splendid. Can you tell us a little about it?

MA: It is by Ellen Portch, who contributed a similarly striking cover for number 34 with her portrait of George Bush jnr. I wanted to include some longer, more difficult pieces in this issue, and Ellen's cover sets that mood just nicely; bold, organic, and almost as creepy as the texts it introduces. SH: Do you have a favourite piece of writing in the new issue?

MA: Several. I opened the issue with Ken Ross's 'Thrash', again to set the kind of mood I was looking for. Richard Taylor gets good leg in, as I've always liked his bluster and chaos, and he sent me some interesting contributions. Brett Cross put in a substantial piece of writing that I hope will surprise everyone who might see him as more of a publisher than a fine and disciplined poet in his own right. At the end of the day, brief is a chance for writers to put out their feelers with their new work and see what people think. Even John Parkyn's story 'Night of the Elephants', a far more straightforward piece of prose than brief usually publishes, represents the exploratory work of a writer attempting to find a voice as an exile living in Mexico, and I hope that his inclusion in brief will provide him with a clearer sense of the context of his work, just as the more difficult contributors may gain some perspective on their own writing.

SH: Can you give us some hints about what might be in issue #40?

MA: I'm afraid it's out of my hands - issue 40 is being handled by guest editor Ted Jenner, so it may be filled with Classical diatribes, African landscapes, and rude ditties...

Subscriptions to brief cost $45 for individuals and $70 for institutions. Subscriptions from Australia are charged $60 and other international subscriptions cost $75. Visit this official site for more information, including details on how to access the latest issue of brief online, and this fan site for a record of every back issue of the journal. Michael Arnold can be reached directly at

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Last days of the dictator

Vanda Vitali's disastrous reign as Director of the Auckland War Memorial Museum will end tomorrow.

For anyone interested in the study and preservation of New Zealand's natural and cultural history, the last couple of weeks have been worrying times. The National government's decision to yoke together the Turnbull Library and the National Archive, shedding jobs and possibly documents in the process, has alarmed scholars, and Gerry Brownlee's undisguised hunger for the gold and silver that lies below our national parks has had veteran environmentalists reaching for their banners and their megaphones.

Now, though, New Zealand's heritage sector has something to celebrate - the imminent departure of Vanda Vitali from the Auckland War Memorial Museum she has ruled as a private fiefdom since late 2007. In a new statement circulated by her lawyers, who have been fighting attempts by the Museum Board to unseat her, Vitali has pledged to leave her office on or before April the 9th. She will lose her powers as Director tomorrow.

Vitali arrived at Auckland's museum in the aftermath of a building programme which had given the institution new assets like a huge atrium and a euphonious lecture hall; her own tastes, though, ran more to deconstruction, and within a few months of her inauguration as Director scores of long-time workers had been dismissed, whole departments had been mothballed, and core services like the acquisition of valuable artefacts had been suspended.

These changes were rendered all the more traumatic by Vanda's failure to justify them with anything resembling rational argument. The 'strategy statements' and 'vision documents' which filtered out of her office were a curious mixture of corporate doublespeak and New Age gobbledygook, and quite as impenetrable as the sayings of Kim Jong-il or the Green Book of Muammar Gaddaffi.

Like all dictators, Vanda became increasingly isolated during her time in power. Her Vulcan-like contempt for the niceties of everyday conversation and her complete innocence of employment law quickly helped build a large and dynamic union branch at the museum. Her references to the Polynesian artefacts held by the museum as 'old stuff' and her proposal to create more office space by moving this 'stuff' to the museum's underground carpark soon had many Maori involved with the institution recalling the depredations nineteenth century imperialists had visited on their taonga. Vanda's public stoush with the children of Sir Edmund Hillary, who had the temerity to try to enforce the rights their father's will had given them over some of his personal effects, earned her the opprobrium of the public at large.

Vanda's falling out with the Museum Board that had bravely or blindly backed her though multiple crises and publication relations disasters made her departure from the museum inevitable. The falling-out was precipitated by former Vanda loyalists making devastating secret representations to the Board about their boss' incompetence and uncontrollable spite. With a certain reluctance, the Board's members were forced to see that their former favourite had become a threat to the very future of the institution they were entrusted to run.

Vanda is not going gently. The Board wanted her gone in the New Year but, with the help of a very expensive legal team - paid for, of course, out of the public purse - she has managed to eke out a last few miserable months as Director. Despised by most museum staff, avoided by the middle management that is supposed to be attentive to her whims, and increasingly distrusted even by the carpetbaggers she flew south from her old fiefdom at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, Vanda has spent much of this year in her bunker-like office, devising increasingly bizarre plans to secure her 'legacy' and punish her critics.

In January Vanda took a knife to the museum's acclaimed Discovery Centre by announcing plans to sack of most of its permanent staff. The Discovery Centre was set up to give small children a place to visit and learn without disrupting the rest of the museum; it is filled with toys and games that are at once fun and educational, and it has traditionally been staffed by men and women with some experience in early childhood education. Without citing any research, and without so much as consulting the Museum Board, Vanda decided that Discovery Centre staff were superfluous, and that some of the customer hosts who man tills at the entrances to the museum could be drafted in to supervise the hundreds of children who fill the Centre every day. It is perhaps not a coincidence that some of the strongest critics of Vanda's policies have worked at the Discovery Centre.

Aware of her unpopularity with the the Auckland public and with key museum stakeholder groups, Vanda has this year used public money to hire a private public relations firm to attempt to repair her image. A 'charm offensive' has been planned, and key figures in the Auckland media have had the dubious privilege of supping with Vanda. Last Friday, for instance, Vanda and her handlers met with Tim Murphy, the editor of the New Zealand Herald, and his senior reporter John Roughan. It is not clear, though, whether any newspaper editor or radio host is prepared to put their head on the block by defending a figure so discredited and disliked as Vanda Vitali. Certainly, media coverage of her travails has continued to be unsympathetic.

Frustrated by the media's failure to sing her praises, Vanda has attempted to engineer her own electronic PR campaign from the fastness of her bunker. Russell Briggs, the head of Communications and IT at the museum, was compelled to use the museum computers to set up a very complicated system of RSS feeds in an effort to make positive references to Vanda more prominent on the internet. The system ensured that, every time someone clicked on a positive story about Vanda from a museum computer, that story rose up google's rankings, and became more likely to find a prominent place amidst the results of a google search. For days on end, the unhappy Briggs was forced by Vanda to sit in his office at his computer, wield his mouse, and click again and again on museum press releases and other texts containing positive references to Vanda.

Despite the Herculean efforts of Briggs, Vanda found to her horror that the most popular online story about her hailed not from her propaganda office but from an obscure blog called Reading the Maps. Briggs' recent farcical attempts to create a wikipedia paean to Vanda were motivated, it seems, by a desire to stop the Reading the Maps article being the first piece of information a google search using Vanda's name conjured up.

All dictators are ultimately ridiculous, and it is easy to chuckle at some of the antics of Vanda. We should not forget, though, the very profound damage she has done, in a mere two and a half years, to an institution which has a special place in the lives of so many Aucklanders and New Zealanders. In an e mail to me last week, a museum employee reflected on the legacy Vanda will leave:

Vanda is mad...It is incredible how much damage she has done to the museum. Countless staff are simply unable to do their jobs because of time-consuming processes that then inevitably lead to her making every single decision, often at a whim without explanation. I'm sure you know what a terrible need to control everything she has.

Hamish Keith, who spotted the danger that Vanda Vitali posed early on, has called for the Board that appointed her to be dismissed, and for an official inquiry to be held into the mess she has created. Keith's call should be supported by everyone who wants to make sure that the blunders and insults of the Vitali era are never repeated.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Petrol bombs, protest camps, and dynamite: the forgotten struggle in our countryside

If they managed to find their way through the maze of the Michael Clarke-Lara Bingle scandal and sundry other non-stories, Aucklanders might recently have encountered a short report near the back of their daily paper about a mysterious arson at an obscure place named Mahia. A diamond-shaped peninsula which marks the northern end of Hawke Bay, Mahia lies a mere seven hours' drive from the lattes and Shortland Street extras of Ponsonby Road. In the nineteenth century, the peninsula was popular with whalers; today it is covered in sheep farms and scrub, and hosts an increasing number of holiday homes along its coastline, as well as small but strong communities of the indigenous Ngati Rongomaiwahine people.

Late one night in the first week of this month, the sort of fire that the police like to describe as 'suspicious' quickly reduced a substantial holiday home near one of Mahia's best beaches to ash. The home's owner had wanted to subdivide the paddocks around his building into six pieces, and thus open the way for more outsiders to move onto the Mahia peninsula. A mixed Maori-Pakeha protest group which had formed to oppose the subdivision has denied starting the fire, and police investigations into the matter appear to have run into a barrier of local silence.

The sort of incident that occurred recently at Mahia is not at all unusual in the countryside of New Zealand's North Island. The Mahia fire only made the national media because it destroyed the home of Murray Mexted, a former All Black turned television personality. When a building on another northern Hawkes Bay site slated for controversial subdevelopment was torched last year, only provincial papers and radio stations bothered to carry the news.

Because of Murray Mexted's deeds on the rugby field and his loveable personality on the telly, the fate of his investment property roused outrage in at least a few corners of the internet. On message boards and at right-wing blogs, 'Maori terrorists' and 'brown barbarism' were condemned, and firm action by the state was demanded.

I doubt whether many of Mexted's supporters were fulminating last Thursday, when police removed thirty-five members of the Ngati Maniapoto iwi from a campsite they had maintained for more than a month beside a two-storey high sacred rock in the southern King Country, on the other side of the North Island from Mahia. For members of Te Anga marae, which sits near the wild estuary of the Marokopa River, the rock called Te Rongomai o Te Karaka was the locus for many stories and myths, and thus an important part of their history and identity. After being dragged out of their campsite at dawn, the hapu from Te Anga were forced to watch Te Rongomai o Te Karaka being blown up by Clearwater Hydro, a privately-owned company which had complained the edifice was blocking work on one of its schemes. When workers from Clearwater and some Pakeha landowners cheered and cracked open cans of beer to celebrate the destruction of Te Rongomai, the anguish and anger of local Maori was only increased. Somehow, I don't think that the destruction of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka will rival the travails of Michael Clark or Tiger Woods, or even those of Murray Mexted, when it comes to coverage in our national media. That is a pity, because the destruction of Te Rongomai offers an insight into the state of race and class relations in parts of provincial New Zealand.

Even in the forties and fifties, when Maori kids couldn't speak their language at many schools and their parents couldn't serve on juries considering cases involving Pakeha defendants, white New Zealanders liked to tell themselves their country had the best race relations in the world. In the 1970s and '80s Land Rights marches and massive occupations of Bastion Point and Raglan Golf Course seemed to be wiping the smug grins off a few faces, but the co-option of many Maori protesters by the state, the creation of an elite 'browntable' of rich Maori, and now the coalition between the Maori Party and National, have succeeded in lulling many urban middle class Pakeha, especially, back into a false sense of security about their country and its history. Incidents like the Mahia arson and the destruction of Te Rongomai show that, nearly one hundred and forty years after the end of the Land Wars, violent contradictions still exist between Maori interests and and the New Zealand state. The confrontation over Te Rongomai is especially significant because it took place in the King Country, a region whose name refers to the role it played sheltering the Maori King Tawhiao and his followers after the Waikato War of 1863-64 ended in Pakeha victory. For nearly twenty years, the King Country, which ran from Mount Pirongia and Kawhia Harbour in the north to the estuary of the Mokau River in the south to the hills above Lake Taupo in the east, was a de facto independent state.

Although they are kin to Waikato and part of the great Tainui confederation of iwi, Ngati Maniapoto are considered the sole indigenous owners of the King Country. The iwi is proud of its role in hosting Tawhiao, and it has a continuing tradition of resistance to some of the more arrogant dictates of the government in Wellington. When the Waikato people, led by the legendary Princess Te Puea, refused to allow their young men to be conscripted in World War One and were threatened with mass arrest and random execution by the state, Maniapoto offered to once again shelter their northern kin in the mountains of the King Country. During the seabed and foreshore hikoi of 2004, thousands of Maniapoto travelled north to join the protest through Waikato, the region where many of their ancestors had fought in 1863. When the hikoi descended on Hamilton, bringing the city to a standstill, Maniapoto youth gathered in the central square, performed a haka, and chanted the old slogan of their great fighting chief Rewi, 'Ka whaiwhai tonu matou, ake ake ake!' ('I will fight forever, forever and ever!'). Like their ancestors, the people of Te Anga have found that the legal system of New Zealand is not designed to deal with their concerns, and that the New Zealand state is only too happy to back up the failures of its legal system with force. Despite the pleading of Ngati Maniapoto lawyers and oral historians, the Environment Court refused to intervene and save Te Rongomai from demolition. A local council dominated by redneck Pakeha sat on its hands. A police raid and a few sticks of dynamite did the rest.

Today's struggles in the countryside are more complex than the battles of the nineteenth century. On the one side can be found hapu and whanau Maori landowners, many Pakeha small farmers, and the growing number of rural landless Pakeha and Maori poor. On the other side is big businesses and both urban New Zealand and international speculators who are drawn either by hard commercial opportunities or by the desire for a 'slice of paradise', by which they usually mean a private fiefdom exempt from the sort of customary practices and rules that have safeguarded the environment in places like Mahia.

The rural conflict has been sharpened by the changed nature of the twenty-first century New Zealand economy. Like so many societies, New Zealand was profoundly reshaped by neo-liberal 'reforms' in the late 1980s and '90s. The economy was globalised, factories emptied as tariffs and other forms of protections disappeared, and whole suburbs and towns were affected by the closure of schools and hospitals and the withdrawal of other public services. Many Maori who had lost their jobs in the cities either moved back to their tribal land for good, or else spent longer periods there. The collapse of urban industry was followed by the rise of the rural-based tourism sector, a big rise in prices for forest products, an explosion in aquafarming, and a prolonged dairying boom. For people with money to invest, places like Mahia and the King Country have begun to look less like backwaters and more like untapped reservoirs of wealth.

Just as the changes in the Kiwi economy have made investors increasingly aggressive in their pursuit of the countryside, so the changed situation of mainstream Maori nationalism has made Maori-led resistance to the buy-up of the countryside more militant. Although John Key has claimed that the Maori Party is able to use its Cabinet posts to keep a lid on Maori radicalism, the party's ascent to something vaguely resembling power has succeeded, in the eyes of some grassroots Maori, in discrediting the politics of negotiation with the Pakeha political and economic establishment. For the increasing number of critics of the Maori Party, the real alternative to the back rooms deals and sell-outs of the organisation is direct action.

In a similar way, the co-option of the conservative leaderships of some iwi by the state has not so much placated as radicalised the grassroots critics of these organisations. Iwi which have made their peace with the Crown have in some cases begun to splinter, as breakaway micro-tribes challenge the whole basis of the New Zealand state. In the East Cape region a group which has split from Ngati Porou in disgust at the iwi's deal with Labour on the seabed and foreshore has gone so far as to attempt to withdraw from New Zealand and found a new nation.

The urban Pakeha left has largely ignored the ongoing conflict in the countryside of the North Island. Over the last decade, a succession of significant Maori-led occupations of land and facilities - the Moerewa school occupation, the seizure of parts of the East Cape area by the Ngati Porou dissidents, the protest camp that tried to stop the building of Ngawha prison, the patrols which ran redneck Pakeha hunters and undercover cops out of the Urewera in 2008, and now the occupation broken by police in the King Country - have barely interested groups which are ostensibly concerned with challenging the rule of capital and the unjust actions of the state.

For some parts of the Pakeha left, especially the country's small collection of increasingly quaint Marxist grouplets, Maori struggles over land and resources are actually a bad thing, because they allegedly lead to the 'division of the working class'. The fact is, though, that without much help from the metropolitan centres of left-wing activism several local communities have already organised effectively across cultural lines to oppose attacks on their environment by outsiders. In Raglan, tenative proposals in 2005 for ironsand mining led to the speedy creation of a large and well-organised group that incorporated both local marae and the local surf club. In the Northland town of Ngunguru, a determined campaign by both Pakeha and Maori defeated plans to build a suburb for the super-wealthy on a vulnerable dune spit.

The silence with which police investigations in the northern Hawkes Bay have been greeted may represent a form of solidarity. The failure of anyone to dob in the person or people responsible for the arsonists reminds us of the silent but fierce support that many rural Welsh people have shown to the Meibion Glyndwyr activists who have torched scores of the English holiday mansions that disfigure their ancient communities.

Of course, as the comments made by right-wingers in corners of the internet in the aftermath of the Mahia arson show, not everyone approves of destruction of property in defence of the environment and human communities. The right tells us that the New Zealand police are the only institution entitled to wield violence in this country, and that our police force deserves its privilege because it acts justly. The destruction of Te Rongomai o Te Karaka shows once again how problematic such an argument is. When the police and the laws they enforce facilitate the destruction of taonga like Te Rongomai, can anyone be surprised that local communities might bypass a biased system and use the odd petrol bomb to defend their interests from aggressive outsiders?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Zone of Controversy?

Some book reviewers only write about work they enjoy; others seem to prefer to discuss tomes that pain or provoke them in some way. I enjoy reviewing books I like, especially when they're produced by writers I consider undervalued, and I don't mind damning books I consider bad and authors I consider malicious.

My feelings become more complicated, and more conflicted, when one of my favourite writers produces a work I struggle to enjoy. Over at the Scoop Review of Books I've considered Zone of the Marvellous, the latest offering from Martin Edmond, the son of Ohakune who has, over the last decade and a half, scribbled a series of masterpieces from exile in Sydney and floated them across the Tasman to grateful Kiwi readers.

Zone of the Marvellous treats the fascinating subject of the role of the South Pacific in the imagination of Europeans, and it is full of the instructive anecdotes and poetic details that make Edmond's earlier work such a pleasure to read; I couldn't, however, enjoy the book. That may be a reflection on Edmond, but it could equally be a reflection on my own neuroses and oversights.

At least one reader of the Scoop Review of Books seems to think my treatment of Zone of the Marvellous is unjust. In the comments box under the review, 'Gaius' has posted a poem which mocks a critic whose 'ivory tower Marxism' turns the 'heart into a graveyard'. The poem's miserable critic is likened to Varus, a Roman general remembered for losing three legions to German barbarians in a battle fought in the forests on the northern border of the empire.

Gaius is the first name of Catullus, the ancient Roman whose poems about his unfaithful girlfriend Lesbia and the bitchy literary scene of the empire have been adapted to contemporary New Zealand settings by the famously (and occasionally wonderfully) bitchy CK Stead. I haven't got Stead's Collected Poems to hand, so I can't say for sure whether the piece which has been posted at the Scoop Review of Books is one of his many imitations of Catullus, but it certainly reads like one. At any rate, I've just been back to the Scoop Review of Books and placed a rough-and-ready poem replying to 'Gaius' underneath his post. Your turn, mate!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Heads in the sand in Dargaville, as claims about prestigious award unravel

Update: to his credit, Dargaville Online editor John McDonald has pledged to print a retraction of the claim that Noel Hilliam won the Senior New Zealander of the Year Award. McDonald sent me a gracious e mail yesterday in which he explained he had been misled by Noel Hilliam, and that this whole affair has been a 'learning curve' for him.

Anyone who has read the comments thread under the previous post on this blog will have witnessed the speedy unravelling of the claim, announced with great fanfare in the Dargaville Online newsletter at the beginning of the week, that Noel Hilliam was recently given something called the Kiwibank Senior New Zealander of the Year Award.

I was out at my parents' place on Monday afternoon when I got an e mail from Edward Ashby, the Dargaville-born archaeologist who has for some time been monitoring the cultural vandalism and wild claims which come from pseudo-archaeologists on the racist fringes of Kiwi society. Edward was sending me an article from the Dargaville Online which a fellow archaeologist had shown to him. The article claimed that 'Kiwibank's Senior New Zealander of the Year Award has this year gone to local identity Noel Hilliam', and went on to characterise Hilliam as one of New Zealand's foremost scholars of the past. Most archaeologists, hisorians, and museum curators have long known Hilliam as an untrained loud-mouth who puts forward the bizarre claim that white people beat Maori to New Zealand by thousands of years, and who steals bones from Maori burial sites.

'Quite a few archaeologists are passing the article round', Edward told me. 'It feels like a slap in the face to us.' Edward was writing a letter to Dargaville Online about its presentation of Hilliam, and I thought that I'd complement his epsitle with a blog post which queried why Kiwibank would possibly think that Hilliam deserved a prestigious award like Senior New Zealander of the Year. Like most things, the internet moves slowly in the rural area where my parents live, so I avoided doing any googling about the award, and instead banged out a post that focused on the claims made in the Dargaville Online article.

When I got home late on Monday night, I was able to do a few google searches, and I found that there seemed to be no reference anywhere outside Dargaville Online to Hilliam's award. The official website of the New Zealand Awards not only ommitted to mention Hilliam - it announced businessman and philanthropist Sir Eion Edgar as Senior New Zealander of the Year for 2010. Southern man Edgar's receipt of the award had been reported proudly by The Southland Times. I put some of the contradictory claims I'd found into e mails to both Kiwibank and Dargaville Online, and went to bed shaking my head.

By the time I was up on Tuesday morning, the estimable Stephen Judd had already seen my post, done his own research, and come to the conclusion that Dargaville Online's claim that Hilliam had won the Senior New Zealander Award was quite false. 'Is the truth perhaps that Hilliam is claiming an award he has not received?' Stephen asked.

A couple of hours after Stephen delivered his verdict, a slightly miffed Denise Beazley, from Kiwibank's branding department, sent me the following message:

I can confirm that Kiwibank did not give Mr Hilliam the Senior New Zealander of the Year award. Any reference to this is inaccurate. In fact we don’t even sponsor this category.

Kiwibank sponsors the New Zealander of the Year Awards. There are 5 categories – Senior New Zealander (sponsored by Ryman Healthcare), Young New Zealander (sponsored by Coca Cola Amatil), Community of the Year (sponsored by Mitre 10), the Local Heroes Awards and the New Zealander of the Year (we sponsor these last two categories as well as being the sponsor of the overall programme).

I have asked the awards organisers to clear up any misunderstanding, both with the local media and any blogs on Mr Hilliam.

Beazley's message was backed up and elaborated by Grant McCabe, the co-ordinator of the New Zealand Awards, who left the following statement on this blog:

I thought I should respond to the incorrect information that has been reported in the Dargaville Online Weekly Newsletter. Noel Hilliam was not the winner of the Kiwibank Senior Award. Firstly Kiwibank do not sponsor the Senior New Zealander of the Year Award they sponsor the New Zealander of the Year Award and Local Heroes Awards. These were won by Ray Avery and Sam Tutu Chapman respectively.

The winner of the inaugural “Ryman Healthcare” Senior New Zealander of the Year Award is Sir Eion Edgar of Otago. He was chosen through a comprehensive judging process from over 70+ nominations for this award.

Noel Hilliam was nominated for both the Ryman Healthcare Senior New Zealander of the Year Award and the Kiwibank Local Heroes Award. He was not a winner, finalist or semi finalist in either of these awards. Like all nominees he did receive a certificate to acknowledge his nomination.

Noel Hilliam's odd claims about history and his destructive attempts at archaeological 'research' have been an occasional subject of this blog, and it did not take long for some readers to connect fantasies about the New Zealand Awards with fantasies about New Zealand history. Keri Hulme was not surprised by Hilliam's latest antics:

Mr Hilliam has parlayed a certificate for being nominated into being the winner of an award that doesnt exist? Sounds par for the course...

But it appears that Noel Hilliam is not the only fantasist in Dargaville. In spite of the testimony of Denise Beazley and Grant McCabe, and in spite of the evidence of the official New Zealand Awards website, the Dargaville Online is still insisting that Noel Hilliam did win the non-existent Kiwibank Senior New Zealander of the Year Award.

In a special issue dedicated to the subject, Dargaville Online editor John McDonald assures his readers that 'Dargaville Online does not publish its articles without making sure there is a firm basis to the story'. For McDonald, this 'firm basis' consists of a certificate he has reproduced in his special issue. McDonald's reproduction of the certificate is so blurry that some of the text of the document is illegible. It's not clear to me whether the certificate, which I've forwarded to Denise Beazley and Grant McCabe for analysis, is a fake, or whether it is simply the document given to Hilliam in acknowledgement of his nomination for the title of Senior New Zealander of the Year.

What does seem clear is that John McDonald and his paper have been taken in by the sort of misrepresentation that Noel Hilliam has tried so often to perpetrate on scholars of New Zealand's past. The longer Dargaville Online goes on listening to Hilliam and denying reality, the less credibility the little paper will have.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Is Kiwibank honouring a grave-robbing crank?

[Reproduced below is an article I'll be circulating in various places over the next couple of days. Regular readers of this blog will already have had the dubious pleasure of encountering many of the characters mentioned in the text. Update: it now seems possible Noel Hilliam has falsely reported receiving a prestigious award from Kiwibank, and that his local paper has repeated and elaborated his claims. See the comments thread at the bottom of this post for more information on this curious development...]

Kiwibank has dismayed archaeologists, historians, and Maori by handing a prestigious award to an untrained self-proclaimed archaeologist with a history of illegally removing bones from Maori burial sites.

Noel Hilliam, a retired farmer from Dargaville, was recently awarded the Kiwibank New Zealand Senior of the Year Award for 2010. According to Kiwibank, the award recognises older people who have been responsible for 'incredible achievements' that create 'national pride'. In an article reporting the award, the Dargaville Online newsletter presents Hilliam as one of New Zealand's top scholars, and claims that his work 'may well contribute to a new understanding' of New Zealand's history.

In reality, Hilliam lacks any training in archaeology, history, or any related subject, has never published research in an academic journal, has never presented a paper at an academic conference, and has never taken part in a scientific archaeological excavation or survey.

Despite his lack of training and expertise, Hilliam confidently promotes a bizarre theory about the prehistory of New Zealand in his writings and his public pronouncements. Hilliam believes that a race of white people lived in New Zealand thousands of years ago, before being conquered by the ancestors of the Maori. He claims that there is an enormous conspiracy, involving the New Zealand government, academics, museum curators, and Maori politicians, to hide the fact that white people arrived in New Zealand long before Polynesians. In a profile published in the Franklin E Local courier last year, Hilliam characterised himself as a 'warrior for truth' who is continually persecuted for his views.

Without the permission of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust or local iwi, and in violation of the 1993 New Zealand Historic Places Act, Hilliam has repeatedly raided Maori burial sites in the Kaipara region and removed human remains, in the hope of using them as evidence for his claims about an ancient white race. In December 2005 Hilliam gave a lecture at Dargaville's museum, during which he displayed some of the many skulls he has removed from Maori grave sites. The theory that an advanced race of white people settled New Zealand long ago before being conquered by primitive Maori has never had any credibility with experts on our history, but it has appealed to this country's white racist groups. The first person to argue that whites are New Zealand's indigenous people was Kerry Bolton, a pseudo-scholar who has had a leading role in a series of neo-Nazi groups, including the New Zealand Fascist Union and the National Front. Another high-profile advocate of the theory that whites reached New Zealand long before Polynesians is Martin Doutre, a self-proclaimed 'astro-archaeologist' with firm connections to white racist groups and Holocaust deniers. Doutre and Hilliam have collaborated on a number of projects, and Doutre often uses photographs of skulls Hilliam has unearthed in the articles he publishes on his website and in racist magazines.

Besides Doutre, Hilliam has worked with the 'Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha', a New Age religious group which claims to be descended from a race of aliens which arrived on the earth over half a million years ago and settled in New Zealand a few thousand years ago. In 1996 Hilliam and Pat Ruka, a leading member of the Universal Peace Nation of Waitaha, held a ceremony at Dargaville museum to celebrate Waitaha 'history'. Ruka and his 'Universal Peace Nation' have been characterised as fraudsters by authorities on Maori history like Tipene O'Regan and Keri Hulme.

Hilliam's raids on grave sites, his connections to white racists like Martin Doutre, and his claims that Kiwi scholars of the past are engaged in a massive, politically-motivated conspiracy have long caused concern in the Kaipara region and beyond. David Williams, a Queens Counsel, University of Auckland professor of law and long-time legal advisor to the Te Uri o Hau iwi of the northern Kaipara, has said that iwi elders were already aware of and disturbed by Hilliam's grave robbing in the
1990s. Williams has compared Hilliam to Andreas Reishchek, an Austrian taxidermist who pillaged burial caves in the Kaipara during the nineteenth century.

The longstanding unease at Hilliam's activities led to a controversy last year when it was discovered that the Dargaville museum, a private institution with which Hilliam has had a long association, was displaying an ancient Maori artefact in an insulting way and misrepresenting it as an example of a pre-Maori 'Waitaha' civilisation. Hilliam was identified as the creator of the exhibit, and the museum was deluged with complaints from across the country. In one widely-circulated complaint, the respected Kai Tahu blogger Marty Mars called Dargaville museum's exhibit 'a complete and utter lie' and denounced the institution as 'a disgrace'.

In a statement issued in response to the complaints, museum administrators said that the exhibit had already been under review, because of concerns of local iwi, and that it would be removed. The museum also disassociated itself from Hilliam, saying that he no longer occupied any official position at the institution and that his views on New Zealand history were not accepted there. In the aftermath of the controversy at Dargaville museum, the New Zealand Historic Places Trust decided to open an investigation into Hilliam's activities at Maori burial sites.

Even before last year's controversy, Hilliam had been facing public ridicule over a series of strange claims he had made in the national media about other aspects of New Zealand history. In 2007, for instance, Hilliam announced that he had discovered the wreck of a German U boat off the west coast of Northland. According to Hilliam, the U boat had left Germany in the last years of World War Two, and was full of Nazi gold. Hilliam's claims were widely reported in the media, but he was mocked when he failed to make good his promise to provide the location of his 'discovery' to the public.

In a statement he made late last year, David Williams said that he hoped that the controversy at Dargaville's museum and the investigation into grave-robbing by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust would mean that Hilliam would finally be comprehensively publically discredited, and would thus find it unable to continue his raids on ancient grave sites. With its decision to give Hilliam the New Zealand Senior of the Year Award, though, Kiwibank has risked giving credibility to the man's bizarre views and his criminal methods of 'research'.

Archaeologist Edward Ashby, who himself hails from Dargaville, has described Kiwibank's decision to give Hilliam an award as a 'slap in the face'. Ashby said that many archaeologists were upset that the work of an 'unethical amateur' who has made 'unfounded accusations against serious scholars' was being celebrated by Kiwibank. University of Auckland lecturer in philosophy Matthew Dentith, who specialises in studying bizarre and irrational ideas, has described Kiwibank's decision to recognise Hilliam as a 'travesty'. 'It isn't a good look for such an award to go to someone who promotes a distorted view of our indigenous history', Dentith said.

If the Senior of the Year Award is supposed to recognise 'incredible achievement' which creates 'national pride', then it is hard to see how Hilliam deserves the prize. For scholars of New Zealand's past and many other Kiwis, Hilliam's grave- robbing and conspiracy theories are sources of embarrassment, not pride.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Banned in Syria - and at Auckland museum

At least one reader of the Scoop Review of Books is pleased that the site has republished my blog post defending Mohsen al Attar from the attacks of Chris Trotter. Commenting under the republished article, 'RKM' reveals that Reading the Maps is banned in his homeland of Syria, 'and so Mr Hamilton must be tracked via Scoop'.

The greatest compliment any writer can receive is censorship at the hands of a dictatorship. I was delighted when Sinologist Michael Arnold informed me a couple of years ago that this blog had been banned in China, and then disappointed when he went on to explain that the suppression of my feedom of speech was nothing personal, but instead part of the increasingly shambolic attempts by tens of thousands of poorly-paid government agents to keep the dodgier parts of the internet out of Cathay. I suspect that the unavailability of Reading the Maps in Syria stems from the same sort of generalised campaign against the unregulated and non-corporate parts of the internet, but I'd like to believe that this blog has been singled out for attention by that country's monarchical Ba'ath regime. Perhaps President-for-life Bashar al-Assad considers my posts on burning issues like the unpublished writings of EP Thompson, wacky theories of New Zealand pre-history, and the art collection of Alan Gibbs to be desperate threats to the stability of his rule?

Bashar is clearly a bit of a tech geek: before he inherited the presidency from his father in 2001, he was the head of the Syrian Computer Society, a group charged with overseeing the belated introduction of the internet into his country. Is it inconceivable that the President-for-life chanced upon this blog whilst cruising the net late one night in downtown Damascus, and was annoyed by the unrestricted freedom of speech evident in our comments boxes, or by the generally low tolerance we have here for hereditary monarchies that bury their critics under ornamental gardens?

But you don't have to go to Syria or China to find regimes determined to curtail internet freedom for selfish political reasons: I've been informed by a reliable source that this blog has been banned from the Auckland War Memorial Museum, where I worked in 2007 and 2008. Staff members who tried to pay a quick visit to these pages from their work computers have watched their screens fill with an ACCESS BLOCKED sign, and a warning against trying to visit websites with objectionable material.

I suspect that the museum's under-siege boss, Vanda Vitali, began to find this site objectionable back in December, after I published an internal document critical of her, along with a brief memoir of life under her regime. Hundreds of visitors have read the post in question, and a series of former employees have used the comments box under the post to vent some of their anger at Vitali. Current museum staff who have been unable to access my post on Vitali at work have simply read it at home.

The ban Vitali has placed on this blog highlights both her hamfistedness and her intolerance of any opposition to her dictates. During the 'restructuring' process that resulted in the sacking of scores of distinguished and long-serving employees in 2008, Vanda attempted to deal with growing opposition to her rule by restricting the e mailing rights of museum workers. In a large and nuanced workplace like Auckland's museum, where staff can work away for days in the splendid isolation of a library archive or a curatorial storage room, e mails are important source of communication and cohesion. Vanda's insistence that 'all-staff' e mails - that is, messages which were sent by an individual to every other member of staff - had to be filtered through her office succeeded in slowing down communications, annoying many workers, and increasing the size of the museum's union branch.

Vitali's latest attempt to use the internet to bolster her rule has ended, predictably, in farce. After being instructed to write a hagiographical account of the life and works of his embattled master for wikipedia, Vitali's head of communications Russell Briggs made the mistake of doing his job from a museum computer, during work hours. When he was outed in the national media, which slated him for ignoring wikipedia's rule that entries be 'unbiased and balanced', Briggs posted an almost sublimely disingenuous justification for his blunder in a comments box at David Farrar's Kiwiblog.

According to Briggs, it wasn't necessary for Vitali's wikipedia entry to mention any of the numerous scandals she has been involved in during the two years of her rule - the endless clashes with employees, the high-profile stoush with the Hillary family over Sir Ed's papers, the deliberate snubs to Maori and to World War Two veterans, and so on and on - because 'incidents' like these shouldn't be 'singled out'. As far as Briggs is concerned, every director of a museum 'lives in the shadow of controversy', and therefore the controversies that have swirled around Vitali aren't worth wasting time with on wikipedia.

It would be interesting to extend Briggs' logic to other jobs involving controversy. All important politicians are inevitably involved in controversies: should we therefore omit to mention these controversies when we provide summaries of their careers in places like wikipedia? Will Briggs be logging on to wikipedia to rewrite the entries for Hone Harawira and Rodney Hide, so that these entries no longer include references to the controversies over the use of public money which engulfed both those politicians last year? Does Briggs favour altering the entry for Richard Nixon, so that it no longer mentions that insignificant little Watergate controversy?

Unfortunately for Russell Briggs and his boss, wikipedia is not as easy to control as the Auckland museum's computer system. The last time I checked, Brigg's ode to the genius of Vitali had been substantially altered by a series of wikipedia contributors. In an irony which Vitali will probably not appreciate, her wikipedia entry now concludes with an excerpt from the blog post I made about her back in December. I've noticed scores of visitors coming to this blog from the wikipedia entry over the past few days, so I suppose I ought to thank Vitali and Briggs for bringing me new readers.