Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Into the fortress

[Since I've been spending a bit of time in archives lately, I thought I'd post this piece of my slowly gestating book on Kendrick Smithyman, in an effort to explain the attraction that the places can exert...]

In Angels and Demons, the blockbusting sequel to the blockbusting film adaption of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, a reckless experiment with anti-matter by a clique of secretive scientists is hijacked by a group of ultra-conservative Catholic clergymen, who use it to stage a modern-day ‘miracle’ designed to give their leader the Papacy. For most of Angels and Demons, both science and religion are presented as fanatical and conspiratorial creeds; laboratories and churches are both places of danger and deceit, watched over by men and women who prefer ideology to truth. The repository of truth, and the natural habitat of the movie’s hero, is the library archive. It is in the fusty quiet of the Vatican library’s enormous basement archive, amidst treatises by Leonardo and Karl Barth, that the veteran scholar Robert Langdon – played rather unconvincingly by the avuncular Tom Hanks – discovers the plan of the ultra-conservatives, confounding in the process his female sidekick, who as a physicist and a philistine cannot understand why anybody would look for truth in an old manuscript.

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that 2009’s biggest film should have been so preoccupied with the research archive. Since the beginning of the digital age, the archive has begun to seem both old-fashioned and attractive. With its shelves full of sturdy first editions and folders bulging with unpublished manuscripts, the archive appears a more robust and more ordered repository of knowledge than the vast, continually fluctuating collection of texts and images which is the internet. The archive also seems exotic. Yellow letters filed in an archive have a permanence that seems foreign in an age when most correspondence is conducted by text; the innumerable alternate and abandoned drafts of manuscripts which writers once left to archives also seem strange, in an era when a mouse click can delete an inconvenient paragraph or chapter.

Nor is it entirely surprising that the humble archival researcher should become the hero of a Hollywood blockbuster. In the twenty-first century, scientists make difficult heroes: for a Western public increasingly inclined to find simple reasons for complex problems, the men and women in white coats seem implicated in evils like pollution, dangerous drugs, and genetically modified food. Other varieties of intellectual seem no more esteemed. Theologians, who provided the moral centre of many a horror movie in the 1970s and ‘80s, now suffer from the widespread association of religion with extremism, terrorism, and – in the West, at least – paedophilia. Led by the crass and canny Damien Hirst, artists have become paragons of self-indulgence and egotism, and are widely seen as little more than the highbrow equivalents of football stars.

With his apparent lack of ideological motivation, his humility in the face of the mighty dead and their hoard of words, and his commitment to the patient, unspectacular preservation and accumulation of knowledge, Tom Hanks’ character in Angels and Demons seems a worthier hero than intellectuals working in fields that have traditionally been considered more glamorous. If the library archive is the place of order in a disorderly world, then the archivist is the guardian of order.

The recent controversy over plans to renovate Turnbull library, the Wellington home of New Zealand’s largest collection of unpublished manuscripts, provided another sign of changing attitudes towards research libraries and the scholars who use them. When they announced plans to demolish the uncompromisingly brutalist facade the Turnbull gained in the ‘70s and replace it with glass, bureaucrats justified themselves with rhetoric about making the library seem more ‘welcoming’ and ‘accessible’, and less like a ‘fortress’. Yet, as numerous letters to New Zealand dailies have shown, it is precisely the fortress-like quality of the Turnbull which excites admiration. It is as though the high, aggressively angled concrete walls of the Turnbull have helped to preserve the purity of the library’s contents, and to assist the labours of scholars in its quiet interior.

If the Beehive and the parliament buildings across the road symbolise the intense but shallow world of our politics, where a week is a long time and research and thought are always disciplined by practical calculation, then the Turnbull seems, in the eyes of many of its defenders, to represent a place where history and ideas are valued for their own sake. Why shouldn’t an institution like the Turnbull throw up defences against the coarse outside world? Research librarians share, or seem to share, the notion of the archive as a place of seclusion and order. Certainly, their practices seem inspired by the notion. There is a pronounced difference between a research library and an ‘ordinary’ community library. A community library is more often than not full of sound, as librarians read to children nestled in bean bags, and pensioners discuss the morning’s headlines at the newspaper table, and couples argue about responsibility for fines at the lending desk. In a community library, noise is not only tolerated but celebrated, as evidence of patronage.

In a research library, by contrast, silence is the norm. Children are usually absent, the newspapers opened on reading tables are likely to be decades old, and patrons are expected to emit as little noise as possible. The archival wing of a research library is a sort of inner sanctum – a church within a church – with its own peculiar rules and rituals, many of which seemed designed to encourage not only silence but a sort of solemnity. Scholars must show identification and fill out forms before they can enter an archive, and once inside they must use special tools –they must, for instance, write with pencils rather than pens, and they must don tight white gloves whenever they handle fragile manuscripts. Seemingly simple tasks like photocopying and scanning may be performed only by the archive’s staff, and only under written request. As I ride a bus into Auckland’s central business district, I notice that one of my fellow-passengers, a middle aged man in a rain-stained suit that looks a size too small for him, wears a cotton mask over his mouth. Does he fear being infected by one of the several varieties of flu that are prospering in Auckland this winter, or is he a flu sufferer who wants to limit his role as a carrier? Should I be afraid of him, or is he afraid of me? As the bus slides from Karangahape Road onto Pitt Street, drenching a poodle and its owner in a gutter’s grey water, I hear the mask cough, then talk, in a deep slow voice, into a cellphone. “Three interviews last week, no luck...” I wonder whether my fellow-passenger removed his disguise when he spoke to his prospective employers, or whether they were treated to same Darth Vader drawl. I glance at the soggy paper in my lap and read GRIM FORECAST – UNEMPLOYMENT TO RISE. I turn a page and find an article on the unwinnable imperialist war in Afghanistan, and another predicting that the entire nation of Kiribati will be rendered uninhabitable by the end of the century, as carbon in the air makes the seas rise.

Cool windy rain is falling as I get off the bus on Queen Street and climb through Albert Park, but inside the University of Auckland library it is almost uncomfortably warm, and I remove my jacket as I approach the Special Collections Room, which is sealed off from the rest of the ground floor by a thick glass door adorned with a sign saying THIS SPACE IS NOT FOR STUDY USE. The door is, as usual, locked, and I have to ring a bell before one of the archivists emerges from the maze of tables stacked with manuscript folders that seems to constitute an office space.

Inside the Special Collections Room I select a pencil and a pile of pristine pages from the stationery table and whisper to one of the archivists, a tall thin pale man who moves about his domain as gracefully and unobstrusively as a background character in a masque. ‘Kendrick Smithyman papers, Manuscripts and Typescripts, manuscripts starting with E. I’m still working through the Es.’ ‘I remember’ he says, in a voice that makes my whisper sound like shout. ‘You should be onto the Fs soon. Three or four folders to go. I hear P is a big one...’ As he flits away towards the desks I wonder whether archives attract men and women who speak and move quietly, or whether archivists have to learn, over a period of months or years, to speak softly, step lightly, and always refrain from burping or farting.

Even a very modest burp could certainly be heard across the whole of the Special Collections Room, such is the silence that presides here. At the table beside mine, a couple of impeccably bald old men graze books with the huge pages and oppressively heavy leather covers of the nineteenth century family Bibles that floated to this country in the holds of overloaded sailing ships. I crane my neck, and see that the pages are filled, not with Psalms and genealogies and woodcut portraits of Saints, but with column after column of handwritten figures. In the office space beyond the old men’s table, Special Collections staff move efficiently about, placing a folder on a shelf, taking another down from a shelf...This is the domain of calm and order.

Now four folders full of loose papers are placed soundlessly in front of me. I open one, and begin to work.

[Footnote: the Special Collections staff at the University of Auckland library operate a very fine blog, which you can read here. To find out about the work Special Collections staff have done on Kendrick Smithyman's papers, check out this post. The long-suffering Marxologists who frequent this site might enjoy reading about the recent mini-exhibition Special Collections staff mounted to publicise the papers of the veteran Kiwi commie Bill McAra.]

Monday, June 28, 2010

Portch versus the sentimental nationalists

My spies at the Elam School of Fine Arts tell me that Ellen Portch's recent exhibition in that venerable institution's B341 gallery was a great success. Apparently the meticulously eerie drawings which Portch gathered together under the name Wall excited a student body sick of being told that a willingness to engage with the mysteries of line and form and perspective is old-fashioned and unnecessary. Some students weary of reading Derrida and composing elegantly vacuous 'concept statements' reportedly begged Portch for a lesson or two in the ancient art of drawing.

Portch may be popular at Elam, but she has faced encountered some criticism in the comments boxes of this blog. After I posted an excerpt from the essay I wrote for the catalogue that accompanied Wall, a couple of commenters complained about the lack of references to 'local', 'New Zealand' subject-matter in Portch's work. Such complaints implicitly raise the question of what exactly constitutes properly 'local', 'New Zealand' subject matter. Fifty years ago Allen Curnow tried to answer this question in the celebrated introduction to his Penguin Anthology of New Zealand Verse. Although Curnow was dealing with literature rather than visual art, his attempt to define the 'local and special' exerted a strong influence throughout New Zealand's arts community. Curnow wanted to distance himself and the generation of poets he represented from the sentimental pseudo-nationalism of the 'Maoriland' generation of colonial versifiers, who looked lovingly back to Britain at the same time as they celebrated the 'new country' by filling their work with 'local colour' in the form of native trees, native birds, and picturesque Maori warriors and maidens. Curnow's distaste for the excesses of his predecessors did not affect his determination to proclaim the importance of the 'local and the special' to the work he and his friends were producing. The young editor's task was to reject the Maoriland generation, without rejecting cultural nationalism.

After a lengthy, baleful survey of the work produced by earlier, inferior generations of Pakeha poets, Curnow constructed an ingenious new definition of New Zealand cultural nationalism. According to Curnow, the poets who represented what was 'special' about New Zealand did so because they dealt honestly with the psychic challenges of living in this remote, strange and - for many artists and intellectuals, at least - inhospitable country. Whether their poems featured kowhai trees or oak trees, or tui or blackbirds, was of secondary import. Curnow hailed his friend RAK Mason as the first truly New Zealand poet, yet noted that Mason's poems feature relatively little explicitly local subject matter.

As feminist and post-colonial scholars have long since pointed out, Curnow's introduction to his Penguin Anthology suffers from all sorts of aesthetic and political prejudices, and fails to do justice to the complicated history of the poetry and song produced in these islands. But even if he was an unreliable guide to New Zealand's literary past, Curnow did an important service by showing up the inanity of the Maoriland writers' idea that a little 'local colour' was the same thing as an indigenous literature. His polemic helped to kill off the sentimental parlour poetry of the Maoriland generation.

It is disconcerting to find that the recent criticisms of Ellen Portch's work seem to rely upon a Maoriland-era aesthetic. Portch's critics find her guilty of a 'sterile internationalism' and pronounce her impervious to 'New Zealand reality', simply because it is not easy for them to find New Zealand subject matter in her drawings. Have Portch's detractors been asleep for the last fifty years, or have they somehow drifted back into the mists of time and sentimentality, until they have found themselves back in the fin de siecle Parnell drawing rooms of amateur versifiers and Sunday painters? I suspect that the apparent recrudescence of Maorilandism in the twenty-first century has something to do with the way that New Zealand art and government-driven marketing strategies have begun to intersect over the past decade or so. Fifty years ago the Kiwi bourgeoisie was more inclined to lock its artists up in asylums than to patronise them; today, though, it regards them, along with the All Whites and Rachel Hunter, as invaluable international sales reps for 'brand New Zealand'. Mixing a ruthlessly instrumental attitude towards the arts with an unalloyed sentimentality about Kiwi life, the Clark government's Heart of the Nation programme was an attempt to direct public funding towards parts of the 'cultural sector' that showcased New Zealand, or at least the commercial viable bits of New Zealand, on the 'international stage'. It is notable that the Key administration has hardly tampered with the substance of the policy since it shunted Clark out of the Beehive in 2008.

All too often, bureaucrats implementing the Heart of the Nation policy have seemed to favour artworks garnished with 'local colour' over more difficult work that reflects seriously upon the peculiarities New Zealand life. The Clark government's love affair with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, a work which necessarily reduced New Zealand to a series of picturesque backdrops, symbolised its reanimation of the Maoriland aesthetic. Is it be any wonder, given the drift of official policy, that the idea that New Zealand can be defined in terms of a succession of picturesque images seems to have caught on, once again, with some Kiwi consumers of art? Rather than keep complaining about the iniquities of the world, I thought I would post another excerpt from the essay I wrote for Wall, in the hope of showing that Ellen Portch's art has a subtlety that cannot be detected by the crude critical instruments of sentimental cultural nationalism. If any neo-Maorilanders want to take the argument further, the comments box is always open for business...

[excerpt begins] Ellen Portch has taught painting technique at the University of Auckland's Elam School of Art for a decade now, and all of the art she has produced in that time has shown her fascination with the mechanics of painting and drawing. Portch's work might seem narrowly focused and almost fussily formal, but it has always been subtly autobiographical.

Portch grew up in a small village in flattest Suffolk, a short drive from East Anglia's storm-eroded coast, before settling in New Zealand with her family in her mid-teens. In the series of portraits of politicians she exhibited at the University of Auckland's Old Government House in 2006, Portch made oblique and cunning references to her status as a thirty-something Anglo-Kiwi. Her large black and white paintings gave the faces of 1980s leaders like Thatcher and Reagan complex networks of stylised lines that reminded many viewers of moko. If Portch's subject matter looked back to her childhood in the '80s, during the tense, half-forgotten era of the Brixton riots, the great miner's strike and the deployment of Cruise Missiles, then her manner called attention to the history and culture of the new homeland she gained after leaving Britain behind. In her austere new show, Portch again makes reference to her past, and to the culture of her second homeland. The thick, apparently concrete walls and almost medieval towers that appear in a number of her new drawings can be seen as memories of the military architecture that marks the ragged East Anglia coastline. As a child, Portch played in the windy towers and keeps of half-ruined castles built by obscure kings as a futile defence against the Viking raiders who pounded the shores of Norfolk and Suffolk like storms. The castles often stood close to concrete pillboxes and gun emplacements hurriedly laid out on cliff tops and headlands during World War Two, when a German invasion of Britain seemed for a while likely.

It might seem hard to find traces of Portch's second homeland in Wall. Certainly, none of the clichés that journalists use to characterise New Zealand art can be applied to these enigmatic and original drawings. The intense sunlight that Rita Angus painted does not seep into Portch's cool corridors and rooms. The hills and bush that kept Woollaston and McCahon so busy do not enter the hermetic spaces of Wall. It can be argued, though, that the loneliness and anxiety that suffuse Portch's new drawings have antecedents in the works of some of the best-known Pakeha painters and writers of the twentieth century.

In the early paintings of McCahon and the early poems of Allen Curnow and Charles Brasch, the New Zealand landscape is, despite the best efforts of generations of white settlers, an eerie, alien thing which will not let its inhabitants feel at ease, let alone at home. Cut off from the European culture which is their inheritance, guilty about the way their forefathers took possession of the land, and aware of their lack of knowledge about their surroundings, mid-century Pakeha intellectuals felt a profound anxiety when they looked at 'empty' hills and plains of New Zealand. Physical alienation breeds social alienation, and in Brasch's much-quoted poem 'The Silent Land', the tight little colonial towns which sat beside harbours and rivermouths are as inhospitable as the landscape around them:

The plains are nameless and the cities cry for meaning,
The unproved heart still seeks a vein of speech

The eerie structures and depthless vacuums of Ellen Portch's new drawings reproduce some of the existential anxiety that suffuses the landscape paintings and poems of McCahon and Brasch. Where McCahon et al struggled to understand and cope with an alien natural landscape by turning it into art, Portch makes art out of the vertiginous spaces and inscrutable details of an artificial but equally disturbing environment.

Friday, June 25, 2010


During the furious, semi-serious debates about postmodernism and other forms of bourgeois decadence that have punctuated the history of this blog, Richard Taylor and other readers with long memories have occasionally stooped to alleging that I was, as a very young man, a woolly-thinking, woolly-haired postmodernist, wholly impervious to the charms of empiricism and resolutely apolitical.

After stumbling upon an appalling document deep in my e mail inbox this morning, I think I will have to concede sadly to the charges brought by Richard and others. Did I really have that much hair in 1996 and, if I did, where did it all go? And why does my old mate Hamish Dewe still look much the same, when I have apparently acquired a new head and body? Click (twice) to enlarge the image, if you dare.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Two reasons to support Maradona's men

In the mid-eighties, a couple of years after the collapse of the right-wing junta led by Leopoldo Galtieri, my father visited Argentina as part of a Golden Oldies rugby team. New Zealand's Golden Oldies are a fairly unserious, unpretentious bunch, more interested in the beer after the game than in the result obtained on the field, and used to staying in cheap motels when they venture abroad. In Argentina, though, my father and his portly, middle-aged team mates got a rather surprising reception. After fighting their way through the chaotic airport at Buenos Aires, they found themselves being driven along a privately-owned motorway to one of the city's wealthiest suburbs, where they had the pleasure of being billeted in palatial homes with fine views over the River Plate.

My father has never been particularly interested in New Zealand politics, and he was not about to take an interest in the complicated internal affairs of Argentina, even after he learned that his wealthy, rugby-loving host had been a Defence Minister during the Galtieri era. My father enjoyed the lavish meals he was provided, nodded uncomprehendingly when his host complained about 'persecution' at the hands of Argentina's new, semi-democratic government, and wondered how long he would have to play during the oldies' Buenos Aires game before he was substituted and allowed to head for the clubhouse bar.

My father's strange experience in Buenos Aires a quarter century ago illustrates the social base of rugby in that country. Rugby may be the football code of the masses in New Zealand, but in Argentina enthusiasm for the sport is as sure a sign of privilege and power as a mansion in Barrio Norte or access to a private, congestion-free motorway. The class divide which runs so deeply through Argentinian society is reflected in a sporting divide. Rugby is the sport of the ruling class, and football is the sport of the rest.

In many nations, the lines that separated different football codes have been crossed in recent decades. In Britain, for instance, football has traditionally been a working class sport, but in the 1960s it began to transcend class boundaries, as players like George Best bought mansions in the home counties and hung out with socialites and jaded minor aristocrats, and the Royal Family and the Conservative Party jumped aboard the bandwagon that was the 1966 World Cup. Today players like David Beckham can pronounce themselves Tories without fearing any opprobrium from their fans. In Argentina, though, old dividing lines remain intact, and football remains politicised.

The 1978 World Cup was held in an Argentina darkened by the 'dirty war' against left-wing dissidents being waged by the military junta which had taken power two years earlier. While football was being played in stadiums surrounded by barbed wire, the junta's death squads were prowling the universities and working class neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires and other major cities. At a banquet hosted by the junta's then-leader Jorge Videla, who wanted to congratulate 'his' team for winning the Cup, the Argentine player Alberto Tarantino confronted the generals about the fate of three residents of his neighbourhood who had been 'disappeared' by security forces. Videla and his cronies were not impressed, but Tarantino's gesture became widely-known, and was an inspiration to the movement working to overthrow the dictatorship.

Now Argentinian footballers have taken another political stand. Before their game against South Korea last week, the Argentinian manager Diego Maradona and his star player Lionel Messi met with Estela de Carlotto, a leader of an organisation called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The Mothers of the Plaza was formed after the downfall of the Videla-Galtieri dictatorship, by mothers whose sons and daughters disappeared during the dirty war. For the last quarter century, they have campaigned for the release of information about the fates of their loved ones, and for the prosecution of those responsible for the thousands of casualties of the dirty war. The Mothers of the Plaza have become involved in other causes, like the movement against the US invasion of Iraq, and the revolt against bankrupt neo-liberal economics that saw three Argentine governments toppled in a week at the end of 2001.

Thanks partly to the efforts of the Mothers, the remains of many dissidents executed by the junta have been recovered, and a number of executioners have been sent to prison. After meeting with de Carlotto, Maradona said that the Argentine football team supports calls for the Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to the Mothers of the Plaza.

The Argentinian team's decision to show its support for the Mothers of the Plaza ought to have been a major international news story, at a time when the media is focusing enormous attention on even the most trivial events at the World Cup. But the Argentinians' statement has been ignored by the mass media.

Some supporters of the Mothers of the Plaza have advanced a rather sinister explanation for the suppression of news of the Argentine team's support for their cause. During the 'dirty war', large numbers of babies and very small children were orphaned, as the security forces executed their mothers and fathers. The Argentinian government seized many of these children, and made them available to wealthy childless couples.

The 'stolen children', as they are known today in Argentina, were raised without being told who their real parents were. Thanks to the campaigning of the Mothers of the Plaza, the Argentinian parliament has passed a law requiring couples suspected of having adopted stolen kids to submit their DNA for analysis and comparison with that of their 'children'.

The Argentinian tycoon Ernestina Herrera de Noble, who controls most of the country's media, is reputed to have received two of the children stolen during the dirty war, and to therefore be less than keen on the work of the Mothers of the Plaza. The Mothers of the Plaza and other opponents of De Noble suspect that he has been using his influence to try to downplay reports of the stand taken by the Argentinian team.

There is another, much less political, reason for being sympathetic to the Argentine football team. The World Cup has so far been a paradoxical affair. The tournament has seen a series of exciting upsets - Switzerland has toppled the much-vaunted Spain, Serbia has bested Germany, and our very own All Whites have embarrassed first Slovakia and then mighty Italy by holding them to draws. Even as we admire the courage of the successful underdogs, we must acknowledge that they have played determinedly defensive football, using conservative formations and spoiling tactics to negate the flair of their opponents. In a footballing era when meticulous game plans based on computer-assisted analyses and relentless team conditioning seem to count for as much as individual talent, Argentina are showing that it is possible to play the beautiful game beautifully without going down to defeat. The Argentine victories over Nigeria and South Korea featured spectacular dribbling runs, audacious passing, and dozens of shots on goal.

Diego Maradona's chaotic style of management - his players reportedly train at a different time every day, depending on when he manages to crawl out of bed - seemed before the tournament like it might doom his team, but it has perhaps ended up giving them a winning edge. Because Argentina lacks coherent game plans, and because players like Messi and Veron are allowed to express themselves and compose their own ad hoc tactics on the field, the team cannot be reliably countered by any predetermined strategy or formation. With their style of football and with their endorsement of the Mothers of the Plaza, Argentina are making important statements at this World Cup.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Smithyman's premonition of Erebus

[I wrote this piece after being asked to submit something to Ka Mate Ka Ora, Aotearoa's very own online refereed journal of poetics, which is planning a special issue on the influence of America on New Zealand verse (it was Ka Mate Ka Ora that did humanity a favour back in 2008, when it published Kendrick Smithyman's superb wartime letters to his comrade Graham Perkins, along with a set of meticulous footnotes by Peter Simpson).

I'm posting the text I sent to Ka Mate Ka Ora here, sans a few of its more academic digressions, in the hope that it will draw attention to some of the extraordinary poetry that Smithyman chose to bury deep in the archive he gifted to the University of Auckland library. 'Aircrash in Antarctica' will appear in From the Private Bestiary, the collection of previously-unpublished Smithyman poems that Titus Books will be bringing out in October. I have the wonderful yet slightly frightening job of editing and annotating From the Private Bestiary, and I will be only too happy if I can get some help interpreting 'Aircrash in Antarctica' from readers of this blog.]

1. The commemorations and recriminations that marked the recent thirtieth anniversary of the Erebus crash showed that the disaster remains a painful subject for many New Zealanders. As James Brown observed, in ‘The Poem That Took the Place of a Mountain’, large numbers of New Zealanders ‘can remember/exactly where they were’ on the night the news emerged that an Air New Zealand DC10 had failed to return from a sightseeing trip over the white continent. Brown’s poem is only one of a number of treatments of Erebus by Kiwi writers. Though these literary responses to the disaster vary in form and perspective, they share a tone of bewildered grief. In poems like Bill Manhire’s ‘Erebus Voices’ and in prose works like Chad Taylor’s fine novel Departure Lounge, Erebus is presented as an essentially ineffable event, hostile to interpretation and generalisation.

A similar sense of bewilderment seems evident in other responses to the tragedy of November 1979. The Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Peter Mahon collected thousands of pages of documents, and did not fail to apportion blame for the Erebus crash, and yet a sense of mystery which cannot be dissolved through the recitation of facts or the repetition of expressions of sorrow clings to the event. We seem to struggle to connect the extraordinary, unheralded event that was the Erebus disaster to the ordinary lives its victims had led, and to the ordinary, and fairly orderly, pattern of New Zealand life in the last quarter of the twentieth century. How, we perhaps want to ask, could a culture like ours have produced an event as strange and terrible as Erebus?

The sorrowful reticence with which New Zealand writers have responded to Erebus contrasts with an earlier cultural tradition of noisily celebrating, and in many cases glorifying, the dangers of Antarctic exploration and of flight. In New Zealand and in many other Western nations, both the sky and the white continent were once regarded as frontiers which needed to ‘opened’ by risk-taking adventurers. When polar explorers and pioneer aviators survived their adventures, they were hailed as heroes; when they expired, they became martyrs. Martyrs often seemed to receive even more adulation than living heroes. Although Ernest Shackleton was celebrated when he brought a party of explorers back from a near-disastrous expedition to Antarctica in 1917, the death of Robert Falcon Scott and his comrades on the white continent in 1912 had caused a much greater outpouring of acclamation across the British Empire. The tragic fate of Ameila Earhart, whose flimsy plane disappeared over the Pacific in 1937, prompted a similar wave of adulation. The uncomplicated response to the deaths of people like Scott and Earhart contrasts with the sad bewilderment which is such a feature of our response to the Erebus disaster. It is not difficult to guess the reason for the different ways the early and later victims of Antarctica have been perceived. A century ago, when Scott unloaded his Manchurian ponies on the shore of the Ross Sea and when the first attempt at flight over Antarctica ended in a crash, the sky and the white continent were zones which only the most resilient adventurers could enter. Aviators and polar explorers struggled to survive in environments that had not yet been subdued by human technology.

In the era that sociologists like to call ‘late modernity’, by contrast, the environments in which air travellers and most visitors to Antarctica spend their time are carefully controlled, and so comfortable as to be almost sterile. The Erebus victims didn’t perish after trekking into a snowstorm or flying a small plane into a headwind; they flew to their deaths in a pressurised, air conditioned tube, sipping wine and nibbling biscuits. They died together, not individually, and they had no control over, and - in all likelihood - no knowledge of their imminent fate. The tub-thumping rhetoric lavished on the likes of Scott and Earhart is clearly ill-suited to the men and women who boarded flight TE901. Is it any wonder we struggle to find ways of understanding, and properly honouring, the dead taken by Erebus?

2. The era of late modernity has also been the era of the United States. The key features of late modernity – mass consumerism, the growth of the service sector of the economy and of tourism, and a popular culture that cuts across class lines - emerged in America, and were exported from America to the rest of the West in the decades after World War Two, as Washington usurped Paris and London as the world’s pre-eminent imperialist power.

1942 was the year in which the United States began to supersede Britain as the main political and cultural influence on New Zealand. After the British Empire had been unable to provide for the defence of New Zealand from a possible Japanese invasion, thousands of American troops began to arrive in the North Island in June 1942. The vast camps the Americans established in places like the Kapiti Coast and Franklin became springboards for the reconquest of the Pacific from Japan.

The arrival of the Americans reassured the many Kiwis who had been nervous about the prospect of a Japanese attack, but the newcomers soon became resented in some quarters for their apparent wealth, their lack of regard for the British customs and traditions that many Pakeha still held dear, and their popularity amongst local women. The American servicemen were often seen as the advance guard of a newly powerful but nevertheless crass and immature civilisation. In 1942 and 1943 the American ‘invaders’ were involved in a series of violent confrontations with Kiwi servicemen and civilians. Although the vast majority of America servicemen had left New Zealand by 1945, the influence of Washington over New Zealand only increased in the years after World War Two. The American policy of confrontation with communism was endorsed by the Labour government led by Peter Fraser, which sent Kiwi troops to fight in Korea and launched a campaign against the hard left’s ‘infiltration’ of the trade unions. The National government that replaced Labour was widely seen to be acting on American advice when it used soldiers and emergency legislation to defeat the militant section of the trade union movement during the lengthy and bitter Waterfront Lockout of 1951. Dick Scott’s famous account of the lockout in his book 151 Days is notable for its use of the critiques of American foreign policy and American popular culture which had developed on New Zealand’s hard left and amongst some of its intelligentsia in the years since 1942. Scott’s book complains of a ‘Yankee invasion’, presents National Prime Minister Sid Holland as a stooge of America, and finds time to warn about the evil effects of American comics on Kiwi children.

Kendrick Smithyman had first-hand experience of the American ‘invasion’ of New Zealand. Called up to the army in the middle of 1941, he joined the air force the following year, and spent most of the war in a series of bases and camps up and down the North and South Islands, performing menial administrative duties. Smithyman served at Ardmore and Whenuapai air bases, on the southern and western fringes of Auckland, at a time when they were hosting large numbers of American pilots. In his wartime letters Smithyman often complains about the ennui of his life as a military pen-pusher, and sometimes expresses his envy of the glamorous American marines and pilots who were pouring into New Zealand. In a letter written from Auckland in May 1944, for instance, Smithyman complains about the ‘bloody fool (or wisely commercial?) attitude of the girls’ who perceive each American serviceman as ‘a strangely transmuted Adonis bearing gifts’.

Smithyman was also able to observe the increasing influence of the US on New Zealand society in the post-war years, and the critiques of this influence which began to appear on the left. Smithyman’s familiarity with and interest in the politics of the far left – his father had been a member of the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour in the turbulent years before World War One, and remained a socialist until the end of his life, and Kendrick admitted conducting a ‘love affair with Marxism’ in the forties – and his friendships with left-wing intellectuals like Greville Texidor and RAK Mason, who were hostile to American foreign policy and popular culture, meant that he would have been well aware that the increasing influence of America over New Zealand in the post-war era was not universally appreciated.

3. Flight was a subject that fascinated Smithyman throughout his career. He wrote poems about aviators, about birds, about aerodromes and modern airports and aircraft carriers, and even about space exploration. Over the course of his career, though, Smithyman treated the subject of flight in quite different ways. In his early work, especially, Smithyman often treats flight as a metaphor for freedom and rebellion. In some of his poems – the critics' favourite ‘Waikato Railstop’, which complains about the way a conservative town will not give an aviator ‘license to go soaring’, for example, or ‘Lament for a North Island Land Association’, which celebrates Leila Adair, the fin de siècle ‘queen of the air’ who defied death and social convention with a series of chaotic ascents over small North Island towns – explorers of the air stand as implicit rebukes to a rulebound earthbound world. In Smithyman’s melancholy 1947 lyric ‘Icarus’, the tragedy of the legendary aviator is regarded as a ‘small matter’ by stolid earth-dwellers. If flight is a form of self-expression and escape in some of Smithyman’s poems, it is in others a source of anxiety and a threat to identity. In ‘Flying to Palmerston’, one of Smithyman’s best-known works, the poet downs pills ‘to keep away/a certain condition’, and fears losing his sense of self on the commercial flight he is about to catch:

Twelve forty-two. A bus is at the door.
No longer a person. You are now
in flight. A flight.

In his excellent commentary on ‘Flying to Palmerston’, Ian Richards notes that Smithyman seems to perceive the rituals of commercial air flight as exercises in dehumanisation. Discussing Smithyman’s 1981 poem ‘Travelling’, which focuses on the way calorie intake, sleep, and other bodily needs are managed on board a large commercial aircraft, Richards observes that ‘the poet is being reduced by the miracles of technology to the ‘plane’ of a merely animal existence’. For Smithyman, the difference between Leila Adair’s erratic ascents by primitive balloon and a DC10 long haul flight is the difference between the heroic individual confrontation with a frontier and the mass use of a resource. In the era of late modernity, the romance of early flight is replaced by something both mundane and strangely sinister. [click on the pages to enlarge them]
4. Smithyman appears to have written ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ on the 23rd of October 1958, a week after an American transport plant called the C 124 – or, more colloquially, the Globemaster – crashed into the Admiralty Mountains in the Victoria Land region of Antarctica on its way to drop off mail and timber at the newly-established Hallet Station on the edge of the Ross Sea. The crash, which claimed six lives and was attributed to poor weather conditions and pilot error, was only the latest in a series of tragedies that had marred Operation Deep Freeze, a campaign by the United States and New Zealand to establish viable research stations and air fields in Antarctica. Motivated by America’s desire to extend its influence to the bottom of the world, and made possible by the relative proximity of the South Island to Antarctica, Operation Deep Freeze had been launched in 1955, when the construction of the McMurdo and Scott bases began. Despite half a dozen fatal accidents, both bases opened the following year, and began to receive regular supply flights from South Island airports. Hallet base was created a year later. At the beginning of 1958 Operation Deep Freeze made headlines around the world, as a team of Kiwis led by Sir Edmund Hillary travelled from Scott base to the South Pole on specially-modified tractors. Hillary’s feat was applauded by the New Zealand public, but it incensed the Americans at McMurdo base, who had not authorised it.

‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ is addressed to the Americans killed in the Admiralty Mountains. Smithyman acknowledges the ambition and technological sophistication of Operation Deep Freeze, and notes the success that glamorous American servicemen enjoyed with New Zealand women. But in a place like Antarctica, where ‘skill is/otherwise valued’, glamour, ambition, and sophistication count for little. Operation Deep Freeze is, Smithyman thinks, bound to suffer the sort of ‘rabid violence’ that is preserved in the ‘earliest stories’ of ‘brown or white/sailors or settlers’ who reached New Zealand centuries ago. Like the Polynesians and the British before them, the Americans will learn that the ‘wind-wracked’ region dominated by the southern ocean cannot be ‘calculated’ and controlled. The air strips and heated bunk rooms of McMurdo and Scott bases are not evidence of the subordination of Antarctica; instead, they represent the beginning of the latest chapter of a history that is given its ‘nuance’ by violence.

‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ might seem, on first or even second reading, like a simple warning against the folly of human vanity in the face of the indifference of nature and time, an antipodean echo of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’. But Smithyman’s critique of American self-confidence is more complicated than the standard romantic critique of human hubris in the face of the inhuman. Smithyman does not regard the violent deaths of explorers and settlers as the avoidable consequence of arrogance, but as a necessary part of history. Just as the inevitability of death gives shape and meaning to human lives, so tragic confrontations with frontiers and with the rages of nature give shape and meaning to the history of our species. Neither self-assurance nor self-abasement can avert the inevitable:

Not confidence, less humility
nor severest calculation
fends off.

For Smithyman the sin of the American mission in Antarctica, and of the American Empire in general, lies in a refusal to acknowledge limitations. Ignoring the pattern of human history, the self-confident new civilisation believes it can use technology and ‘severest calculation’ to subordinate and sterilise the territories it claims. The Americans are hubristic not because they have the ‘verve’ to make ‘icefall’ at the bottom of the Pacific, but because they believe they can do so without paying a price – without, to use Smithyman’s term, being ‘blooded’. By failing to recognise the limits of their control over their environment, the Americans only ensure that the tragedies they suffer will be more frequent and more severe.

‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ is written in the ‘syllabic’ form that Kendrick Smithyman gave to a number of his poems in the late 1950s. In an essay on the life and work of his old friend, CK Stead explained Smithyman’s choice of form:

One kind of experiment [Smithyman tried]...was to make a quite arbitrary syllabic count – a pattern of so many syllables for the first line, so many for the second, and so on, and then repeat it, as nearly as possible without variation, throughout however many stanzas the poem contained. This was so demanding, and took so much attention, it was hardly possible for the lines to slip unnoticed into the iambic ‘tune’. Smithyman’s experiments in these forms were typically extreme, and typically undeclarative. He set himself the most extravagant technical obstacles...

The poem Smithyman dated 'October 23rd, 1958' consists of six stanzas of eight lines each, plus a two-line conclusion. Where some of Smithyman’s syllabic poems are, as Stead notes, very regularly patterned, ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ seems a good deal looser. The first and last lines of every stanza are always two and eight syllables long respectively, but the others often vary. The third line of each stanza, for instance, may be either eleven, twelve, or fourteen syllables long.

Despite the relative moderation with which it is used, the syllabic form of ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ often interferes with the rhythm and meaning of Smithyman’s sentences and phrases. Sudden line breaks dictated by the syllabic form sunder verbs from their objects, and adjectives from the nouns they qualify. That strange abstract noun ‘nothing’, which so fascinated King Lear, is repeatedly isolated at the beginning of stanzas, so that it acquires an incantatory effect. The syllabic rules which govern the shape of the poem’s lines struggle against the rhythms and meanings of Smithyman’s sentences. The syllabic form is itself disrupted, as lines sag or surge unpredictably. The form of ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ suggests a violent, only partially successful attempt to impose an artificial order on something complex and turbulent.

5. What is perhaps most remarkable about ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ is the equanimity with which the poet discusses both the misfortunes of Operation Deep Freeze and the larger topic of American expansionism. Smithyman is unimpressed by the ‘ambitious sense of duty’ shown by the ascendant American empire, but his poem lacks the white-hot rhetoric and political partisanship of texts like 151 Days, or RAK Mason’s famous ‘Sonnet to MacArthur’s Eyes’.

Smithyman observes the world’s newest superpower not with admiration or anger, but with a distant, almost Olympian pity. Unlike Scott, Mason, and other left-wing anti-imperialists, Smithyman does not imagine that some rival force - the international working class, or the Soviet Union, or Red China - can constrain or even defeat American imperialism. Smithyman’s cool tone and historical perspective mock not only the self-importance of America but the heat and urgency of the opponents of American imperialism. We can only explain the peculiar perspective and tone of ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’ if we understand the worldview and literary modus operandi Smithyman had settled on by the time he wrote the poem. As a young man, Smithyman had been distressed and radicalised by the Great Depression and by the World War which grew out of the Depression. In a wartime letter to his friend Graham Perkins he complained that:

We have seen virtually all things shattered. We are, those of us who think, sophists by birth and confirmed in the habit of doubt. What values can we take as permanent? Precious few out of our way of life...I see little remedy or hope in anything, though I turn more and more to Communist philosophy as a chance.

Although he abandoned any belief in ‘Communist philosophy’, the post-war Smithyman retained a sense of dismay at the state of the modern world. He also felt a sense of estrangement from his fellow New Zealanders, as he struggled to make a career for himself as a poet and an intellectual in a nation that seemed to have little time for ideas, and even less for the arts. The Stalinised hard left which presented itself as an alternative to post-war New Zealand society seemed, to Smithyman at least, just as intolerant as the Tories, with its demands that writers and artists ‘serve’ the working class and tow the ‘party line’.

Smithyman’s gloomy view of the modern world led him to pay attention to two radical critics of modernity, the American poet and essayist Allen Tate and the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. From Tate Smithyman took the concept of regionalism, which became crucial to his practice as a poet and to the view of New Zealand literature and society he put forward in his 1965 book A Way of Saying. In his 1945 essay ‘The New Provincialism’ Tate argued that in the modern era the West had lost touch with its history and its cultural traditions, and had therefore become ‘provincial’. The ‘provincial man’ was arrogant, Tate said, because he believed that nobody had had his experiences before. In opposition to the shallow, ahistorical ‘world provincialism’ that had taken over the great cultural centres of the West, Tate argued that writers should base themselves in a region and seek to understand that region in terms, not of contemporary fashions, but of humanity's rich and diverse cultural history. Regionalist literature would be limited by space, but not by time. Allen Tate practiced what he preached, by residing in and writing about America’s unfashionable south, whose agrarian way of life he contrasted favourably with the ‘Yankee capitalism’ of the modern, industrialised north. Martin Heidegger was also a regionalist, in the sense that he chose live almost his whole life in the Black Forest region of Germany, whose landscape and values he compared favourably with those of more populous and glamorous parts of Europe. Heidegger disliked the modern world partly because he felt that it insulated its inhabitants from confrontation with the essential nature of their lives. He believed that modern Western city-dwellers, with their comfortable homes and access to diversions like movies and television, were able to avoid thinking about the inevitability of their deaths. This avoidance of the essential fact about human existence led to an arrogance towards nature, and a forgetfulness of history, on the part not just of individuals but of entire cultures. Smithyman appears to have been one of Heidegger’s first and most enthusiastic New Zealand readers.

The influence of the regionalist thinking of Tate and Heidegger can easily be discerned in ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’. Smithyman’s coolness toward American power and culture reflects his hostility to what Tate called ‘world provincialism’. His recognition of the inevitability of tragedy to history reflects his understanding of Heidegger. His insistence on seeing the drama of the present through the prism of the past shows his determination to make history present in his poems, in defiance of the anti-historical bias of the modern age.

For the many New Zealanders touched in one way or another by the Erebus disaster, Smithyman’s prediction that the Americans who crashed in the Admiralty Mountains on October the 16th, 1958 ‘surely/will not be the last’ would ring sadly true. The absurdity of Air New Zealand's scenic flights to Antarctica, with their pretence that the wildest place in the world could be reduced safely to a spectacle to be consumed along with wine and biscuits in the pressurised tube of a long-haul passenger jet, can perhaps be considered a consequence of the sort of disastrous over-confidence that Smithyman criticises so powerfully in ‘Aircrash in Antarctica’.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Football, the working class, and Marx: a 'tweet' from Kendrick Smithyman

There has been a protracted discussion about the pros and cons of the Fifa World Cup under my last post, with football fans of various political stripes battling against rugbyheads, hardline anti-sport hippies, and advocates of an alternative World Cup uncontaminated by corporate dollars and world-class talent.

A couple of weeks ago, during a different debate on this blog, Dave Bedggood suggested that writers have nothing to fear from the new technology of the internet age. According to Dave, poets would do well to learn how to express themselves in tweets. I thought Dave and other veterans of the debate about the World Cup might enjoy this poem by Kendrick Smithyman, which manages to deal with football, Marxism and the future of the working class in the space of the average tweet:


Marx was wrong.
The quantitative does not become
qualitative. Have you ever seen
a dealer's window full of TV sets
reporting an English football match?

Negation is not negated.

Smithyman scribbled the poem down on the 20th of May, 1969, while he was spending six months in Britain as the guest of the English Department of Leeds University. 'Dialectic' did not appear in Journal 69, the section of Smithyman's Collected Poems which describes his English adventure, but it did survive on a piece of loose paper in the great man's archive, where I discovered it last year. I'm urging Brett Cross to allow me to include the poem in From the Private Bestiary, the annotated selection of Smithyman's unpublished poems which I am bringing out through Titus Books this year.

I'll post an interpretation of 'Dialectic' when I have time, but I'd be interested to see what some of the readers of this blog have to say about it. Is the poem deceptively simple, or is it just, well, simple? And does anyone have an idea what game might have been playing on English televisions on or just before the 20th of May? According to my five minutes' of research on the internet, the English football season was well and truly over by then, with the FA Cup final, in which Manchester City beat Leicester City, having been played in mid-April.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Six (increasingly silly) reasons why leftists should support the All Whites

1. Football - or soccer, as it is demeaningly termed here in New Zealand - has had a long association with the left, in both the antipodes and the northern hemisphere. It was football which brought Allied and German troops together in no man's land on Christmas day during World War One, and thus foreshadowed the left-wing soldier-citizens' revolutions that brought the war to an end in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1918. Che Guevara may have had a rather bourgeois liking for golf, but he used games of footy to help train the volunteers for his guerrilla armies. In New Zealand, postwar British immigrants - the co-called 'two bob Poms' who fled the cramped austerity of Yorkshire and East London for open spaces and public works projects downunder - championed the twin causes of football and trade unionism. Back in the eighties my father, who remains even today an unregenerate rugbyhead, would mutter 'bloody Pom - they're all Poms!' whenever a trade union leader or local footballer was interviewed on the telly.

2. The internationalism of the World Cup, and of football in general, ought to help shake Kiwis out of their insularity. Rugby is our national sport, and we still assume that much of the rest of the world attaches the same rare importance to the game. It does not. If we were to dump rugby for football we would discover that, in sporting as well as economic and political terms, we are very small fish in a very large pool. We would discover that even in South Africa, Australia, and England, let alone Argentina and Spain, it is football, not rugby, which is the pre-eminent sport. Instead of imagining ourselves as the rightful champions of the world, we would have to consider ourselves inferior to nations as previously insignificant as Senegal, Honduras and Ivory Coast. We might lose some of our First World hubris.

3. The All Whites have already attracted considerable support from the New Zealand public, despite the fact that they are very unlikely to reach the second round of the World Cup. Whenever the All Blacks play, we expect nothing less than victory. Losses, especially in World Cup games, prompt national mourning and weeks of recriminations. If the Kiwi public can learn to cheer the underdog against the overdog, then it will become a good deal less neurotic.

4. The All Whites are playing Italy, a team which is both aesthetically and politically objectionable. Italy plays a dull, vicious style of football designed to create one-nil wins and opposition injuries. They are sore losers - when they were knocked out of the 2002 World Cup by South Korea, for example, they reacted by whingeing for weeks and booting all the Koreans out of Italy's domestic club competition. One of the major forces in Italian football is the club SS Lazio, which was patronised by Mussolini and enjoys the support of thousands of neo-fascists today. Italy won the 2006 World Cup final after the Lazio player Marco Matterazi used racist language to goad the French captain Zinedine Zidane into a headbutt. We should avenge Zidane.

5. Tommy Smith is left wing.

6. Do these arguments seem a little laboured? Do you sense that even their author finds them somewhat unconvincing? Do you think he might have some other, less respectable reason for urging support for the All Whites? You should do.

The sad truth is that I have very personal reasons for wanting New Zealand to get behind the All Whites and let the All Blacks labour in obscurity. After growing up in South Auckland as part of the oppressed minority known as soccer players, I want revenge on rugby. Rugby was the sport of the larger and cooler kids, who rounded on skinny wretches like me in the school changing rooms and condemned us as 'soccer sissies'. Rugby was the sport that dominated school awards ceremonies. Rugby was the sport that was all over the TV. And it was my high school's First XV, and not its First XI, which attracted groupies at the afterball party.

Like my fellow soccer sissies, who came mostly from the green, middle class fringes of South Auckland, I developed a repertoire of responses to the jibes that were thrown my way by rugbyheads. I would respond to sneers about soccer being a 'girl's game' by noting the manliness of Pele and George Best; I would refute claims that 'nobody plays soccer' by pointing out that, outside the veldt of the apartheid state and the coalfields of Wales, it was soccer which was the global game of choice. Deep down, though, I recognised the justice in the accusations I faced. Like the rest of the boys in my soccer teams, I was skinny, pasty, and had freckles rather than muscles on my limbs. I blew on my hands to keep them warm at Wednesday night practices, and winced on the rare occasions my head came into contact with that greasy heavy round thing called a ball. I played soccer not in homage to the genius of Pele and Best, but because I feared the prospect of getting spear-tackled by Polynesian kids twice my size, or drowning on the muddy bottom of a scrum. I was not so much an enthusiast for soccer as a refugee from rugby.

There was a curious dissonance between the timorous middle class boys who opted to play soccer in South Auckland and the hard men from the old country who coached the game. I remember a coach called Mr Dunbar, who had grown up in a Glasgow slum and spoke with the sort of accent that forces distributors to add subtitles to Ken Loach's movies. Mr Dunbar had come to New Zealand to help build hydro dams on the cold central plateau of the North Island, but the bunk dormitories of Mangakino had probably seemed like luxury to him. Like the other members of Papakura Boys C, I could only understand Mr Dunbar when he swore. Luckily, perhaps, he swore often, especially when he was watching me listlessly pursuing opposition strikers down the left side of my own half, or ducking my head at the last moment to avoid contact with an aerial cross, or skipping neatly out of the way of a ferocious free kick.

I can recall one occasion when I enjoyed a sort of vicarious revenge against the rugbyheads who dominated sporting and social life in South Auckland. One Friday night in 1992 a visiting youth football team from a particularly hard part of Yorkshire - from Scunthorpe, perhaps, or Grimsby - turned up at the Forge, which was then the closest thing to a nightclub in Papakura, and ordered a few drinks. As luck would have it, the local first XV was also boozing at the Forge. Assuming that the Poms who had just walked in were as soft as the average bunch of South Auckland soccer sissies, a couple of the props from the first XV wasted no time in starting a fight. Within five minutes they searching for their front teeth in the carpark at the back of the club.

I don't wish violence upon the rugbyheads of New Zealand, but I would love to see the country turn its attention and affection toward football, even if only for a few weeks. Let's all be 'soccer sissies'!

Footnote: I'm pleased I got up last night for the clash between South Africa and Mexico that launched the Cup, and pleased I went to bed before the nil-all draw between Uruguay and France. I got the Mexico-South Africa scoreline right, but picked Uruguay to edge out France by a goal. I'm hoping that Nigeria's Super Eagles can sneak past the Maradona-damaged Argentinians tonight. I've picked Germany, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Argentina, Spain, the Netherlands, and Ghana to make the last eight, and the Netherlands to beat Ivory Coast in the final. (I know a lot of people are talking about Brazil playing Spain in the final, but these teams are in adjacent groups, and it seems to me quite likely that they could meet each other as early as the second round.)

Friday, June 11, 2010

'New Zealand's House of Parliament is the Central Police Station': Vaughan Rapatahana speaks out

A couple of years ago, when New Zealand and China were on the verge of signing a free trade deal, and certain self-righteous Kiwi leftists were upbraiding China for its sins in Tibet and other colonies without pausing to think about the history of their own state, this blog carried a statement which purported to come from a group of Chinese dissidents.

In their declaration, these foes of the Chinese regime criticised the prospect of a free trade deal with New Zealand, complaining that, by doing business with a state with a history of dispossessing its indigenous people and joining in imperialist wars in places like Vietnam and Malaya, China was sacrificing its reputation as a champion of Third World nations and of oppressed peoples.

The statement which appeared on this blog was, of course, a fake. I tried to underline the text's satirical nature by identifying Li Ho, the famous medieval Chinese poet translated recently by Mike Johnson, as one of the dissidents who were supposedly speaking out against a free trade deal with colonialist New Zealand.

Despite my best intentions, my post was taken very seriously by more than a few patriotic Pakeha Kiwis. I got the odd message about 'Maori bludgers' and their 'gook mates', and I remember how my friend Michael Arnold sent a link to my post to a number of his friends and relatives, and in return received a series of vituperative e mails complaining about the way that 'Maori radicals' were 'blackening the reputation' of New Zealand abroad. Pakeha New Zealanders are, it seems, uncommonly sensitive to the suggestion that their state might possibly be complicit in the same sort of colonialism they are happy to condemn in Tibet, or the Northern Territory, or 'French' Polynesia.

Vaughan Rapatahana is a man who long since ceased worrying about the sensitivites of Pakeha New Zealanders. An educationalist, literary scholar, and poet, he has for some years now chosen to live in exile from New Zealand, out of disgust at what he sees as the rampant racism of Pakeha. Ironically enough, Vaughan finds it easier to live in modern-day China, the nation regarded as peculiarly evil by so many righteous liberal Kiwis, than in New Zealand.

In a statement he sent to this blog recently, Vaughan examines what he calls the 'mythology of Aotearoa'. I've reproduced Vaughan's angry, suggestive text not because I agree with all of it, nor even most of it, but because I think that it might stimulate an interesting debate.

Biographical note:

I am 56. I am Te Atiawa, whilst on my late father's side I can also claim six generations New Zealand heritage back to the early 1840's. I have a home in Te Araroa, East Coast. I am married to a lady from the Philippines (Pampanga) where we also have a home. Her kids are Cantonese speaking. Our household is nothing if not multilingual. She speaks four languages too. My daughter lives in Australia. My son hung himself in Cannon's Creek in 2005, aged 29.

My ex-wife is Ngati Porou. Another ex is Ngapuhi. I refused to teach in middle-class orientated (qua Pakeha) secondary schools from 1993 onwards and wrote a letter quoting Illich to the then NZPPTA Journal stating this opposition. Except for a brief tenure in a Southland college in 2006 (horrible, racist) I have spent my time since as a teacher in Maori-orientated schools, or overseas, where I have spent at least 14 years in such places as The Republic of Nauru, UAE, Brunei Darussalam, China, and Hong Kong, 'teaching' the scoundrel English language to all-too-often unwilling indigenous.

I got a PhD in Existential Literary Criticism from University of Auckland, after spending most of my schooling years in Papatoetoe and working at Southdown Meatworks, Otahuhu. I am a published poet in several countries (e.g Thailand, Malaysia, Aotearoa, Philippines. Hong Kong), as well as a writer published online and in book form. My teaching resource 'English Through Poetry' series is currently available from User Friendly Resources, Christchurch...whilst my book
Wilson as Mystic was published in U.K. some years prior.

And when I look at all this I shut up! Enough about me, eh. But I think I have had a fair bit of life experience to be able to comment about my homeland from the perspective of looking back, a Kiwi in China.

The mythology of Aotearoa

There are several myths pertaining to Aotearoa–New Zealand, the import of which is exacerbated the further I travel away from there, and the longer I do so. I am now a self-exiled Kiwi of mixed blood with a whakapapa on both sides extending back a minimum of six generations, who maintains a home there, but returns less and less. Kaore he hokinga ki taku kainga inaianei.

1.The myth of racial harmony. It is bullshit. There is NOT racial harmony in New Zealand, and never has been, and on any side of the cultural hexagram. Many Pakeha still remain steadfastly ignorant of what a Maori is and wants and sees/thinks, remain stuck in the rampant monolingual liddicoatism* of ‘what a funny language’ as regards te reo Maori, mired still in a postcolonial yet neocolonial anglocentric stupor whereby knighthoods have been disinterred, the bloody national ensign still flutters a union jack, and mean epithetical generalizations regarding Maori (and other Polynesian) education, crime, social welfare, customs prevail. These Pakeha have never been on a marae and never will go. [* ignorant bourgeois mentality, after a fellow expatriate Kiwi educationalist categorized Bahasa Melayu as such.]

Yet several Maori too are self-congratulatory, mutually exclusive, cast rigidly in the selfsame paradigm of static binary distance that they accuse the Pakeha of subscription to. They all too often also disparage other Polynesians, as well as some other (Maori) iwi not their own.

Filipino is a dirty word in Aotearoa (and indeed elsewhere), while Chinese are seen as avaricious and Asian, and therefore necessarily worthy of suspicion. Indians only run corner dairies (which is why they ‘are no good at soccer’) and there are ‘too many of them nowadays’ anyway. And so on…racial tension races like a conterminous computer virus across the divide, with no quick-fix Norton on site.

Why? Indubitably initially because of rampant colonialist greedy mendacity and the sheer despicability of a majority of the British ‘settlers’ in the 19th century and well beyond, in their conniving creation of the current systems, as maintained by the selfsame pale gatekeepers even now, despite/because of (neo)liberal lip-service and densely opaque ‘palliative measures’. These latter contrivances only continue the imbalance, the distance, the gulf between not only Maori and Pakeha, but also between Pakeha and the waves of the (imported) ‘new’ Kiwi labour force; and now also between some of the so-called (economically privileged and fiscally suited) ‘new’ Kiwis and the tangata whenua, the latter of whom still have far too much unwanted imperialized baggage to tote. It’s a handicap trotting carnival and Maori were never given the reins, let alone the riding boots. Shit, they weren’t even invited to the meet.

The history of Aotearoa was invented/continues to be invented by Nga Pakeha (and indeed some Maori) so that it resembled/s a palimpsest of what actually did occur, a front, a façade of Abel Tasman ‘discovering’ a land of plenty, where everyone strives on a ‘level playing field’: where everyone gets a ‘fair go’ from the impartial, unprejudiced referees stationed in police stations and school staff rooms which are actually also police stations. New Zealand’s House of Parliament is the Central Police Station.

Pakeha-inspired hegemony pervades and prevaricates like a pampered pet at a dog show, and shows no sign of ever spitting out the tasty bone of power. Witness the Mayor of Wanganui’s ignorant rants about Whanganui. Witness Don Brash’s Orewa ignominy. Until there is bona fide as potent counter-discourse extant to flush away this prevailing lush episteme, New Zealand will remain embroiled in the stew of racial dissonance – and the stew will only get more overcooked.

2. The myth of a social nirvana – Godzone. More crap. New Zealand is quantitatively qua statistically dysfunctional, populated with violent, misanthropic, narrow-minded, patriarchal, misogynist ‘mavens’ – on all racial fronts – all too often, disproportionately and very sadly, peopled and perpetrated by my own kind. Maori (and other Polynesians) whack as many of their ostensible ‘brothers’ and rape as many ‘sisters’ as do their doppelganger white ilk.

(Vicious) crime is bad, (youth) suicide rates are worse: a continued endemic fixation on rugby, racing and beer precludes any qualitative sensibility & sensitivity. Our most well-known poets are failed macho men, or otherwise categorized as ‘homos’; at best poofters.

Economically Aotearoa is also a gumpy tar trap with a tax rate beyond rescue. Tall poppies’ deeds are routinely eviscerated, and Murray Deaker pontificates like the Pope. And his audience is massive – which worries me somewhat. Who really gives a fuck who is a rugby saint? Will Ritchie Macaw go up to Rangitukia and fix the roof leaks of nga pakeke tino pohara?

It’s this tunnel-vision myopic hedge trimming of difference/diversity – not confined merely to rural southern swarthiness, not continued ‘just’ by middle-class males – that swims through my country as a scanty shark seeking prey, and that – ultimately -keeps me at bay.

There is a cringibility factor throughout my own land, an ignorance, a smugness, an implosive self-limiting wariness waiting to snarl ‘I told you so’ in self-congratulation, that is the snake in the garden. Until it slithers off to die somewhere, Aotearoa-New Zealand is no edenic haven.

Myths one and two are symbiotically obsolescent, twentieth century swill, which don’t recognize their overdue dating. Our history and therefore our essence urgently require a cogent, non-fictive and salutary revision. New Zealand needs a silver bullet right now.

Finally, of course there are far ‘worse’ places to live – I’ve inhabited some. Places where you breathe black coal shit diurnally or madmen chase you with drunken machetes.

But I am a New Zealander and I expect/demand much better.

Vaughan Rapatahana

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

The Kawhia Canto

Along with Skyler, Hamish Dewe, and Sabrina, I've just spent a few days in a cottage built long ago for the postmaster-general of the little King Country port of Kawhia. With typical Yorkshire guile, Skyler organised the trip behind my back. She didn't tell where I was headed until she had driven me past Mount Pirongia, at the bottom of the Waikato, and onto the road that goes west over limestone hills to Kawhia harbour.

Without the archaeological reports, local histories, and antique maps I usually regard as essential travelling aids, I was always going to be vulnerable to the machinations of Hamish Dewe, who soon had me sitting in the Kawhia Hotel, sampling what he likes to refer to as 'the finest brown wine'. The weather further limited my research opportunities: although my companions and I made forays to nearby Aotea harbour, with its ancient taro plantations and abandoned razorback pa, and to the south side of Kawhia harbour, where 1835 declaration of independence flags flicker next to the ruins of a Wesleyan mission station, a succession of hailstorms and gales meant that we spent more time indoors than out.

Kawhia is not a bad place to be kept indoors. When I wasn't in the Kawhia Hotel, I was able to sample the delights of the Blue Chook Inn, of the local fish and chips joint, which specialises in shark meat, and of Annie's Cafe, which does a superb paua fritter. Back in the cottage, I joined Skyler, Sabrina, and Hamish in low-stakes games of poker and high-stakes games of scattergories, and explored the absurdities of the Creationist books and magazines the previous tenant had left behind in a vain effort to save my soul. Hamish is never perturbed by inclement weather: unlike ordinary mortals, who need regularly to stock up on their rainy day reading material, he is not only willing but able to read the same book, Ezra Pound's Cantos, over and over, year in and year out. For nearly two decades, the peripatetic Hamish has kept Pound's epic near him almost constantly, consulting it in the way lesser men consult horoscopes and travel advisory statements and Creationist textbooks. The new books Hamish continually consumes are read through the prism of Pound's masterpiece.

With its endless quotes and allusions and its journeys across millennia, The Cantos is a book which seems to contain all other books, and to comment upon all of human history. Pound may have gone mad, and embraced for a while the putrid doctrine of fascism, but to a reader of Hamish's sensitivity this only makes The Cantos a more complete record of human folly.

On Saturday night, as we were manouevring our way between huge cold raindrops on our way to the hotel, Hamish told me that Ezra Pound would have liked Kawhia. 'Pound loved history', he said, 'and in Kawhia history is real'.

Typically, Hamish refused to elaborate on this gnomic remark. I think, though, that I understand what he meant. The Cantos have a strange simultaneity, because of the way that Pound juxtaposes fragments of the history of different societies and epochs. At its best, Pound's poem shows us that history not only influences but, in a real sense, persists inside, the present. Kendrick Smithyman might have been discussing The Cantos when he wrote that:

History is real. You may touch,
eye, taste, smell it out from
its forms or casual deformities.

Kawhia is not a prosperous place. Arguably, both Maori and Pakeha have maintained the town for ideological rather than economic reasons. Kawhia was the final resting place of the Tainui waka, and the seedbed of Te Rohe Potae, which eventually extended north to Auckland and as far east as the little Bay of Plenty town of Torere. Today Maketu marae, where the Tainui waka was reputedly buried, remains an important gathering place for the iwi, as well as the summer residence of the Maori King. In 1883, the Pakeha government in Wellington established a settlement in Kawhia simply to show that its power could extend even to the cradle of Tainui. In the early decades of the twentieth century there were suggestions that Kawhia should be turned into a major industrial port - the town's harbour looks straight out to Australia, and is not nearly as treacherous as west coast rivals like the Manukau and the Kaipara - but these were ignored by successive governments. In 1942, when Japanese submarines were attacking Sydney and orbiting New Zealand, military planners briefly became alarmed that Kawhia might be used as a 'back door' to the Waikato and Auckland. Defences were quickly thrown up around the harbour, and then just as quickly forgotten, as the course of the war changed.

Like so many provincial centres, Kawhia was badly affected by the neo-liberal 'reforms' of the 1980s and '90s. More recently the town may have suffered, in relative terms at least, from the decision of Tainui to build a new parliament, a whare wananga, and other institutions in its modern capital Ngaruawahia, rather than in its ancestral home on the coast.

Despite its isolation and relative neglect, Kawhia has none of the bleakness of North Island towns like Mangakino and Murupara, which were built quickly in the postwar era for specifically economic reasons, and then hammered by neo-liberal deindustrialisation. Despite the odd boarded-up window, Kawhia has the sense of permanence that a long past can create. History exists alongside the present without mocking it. Ancient, dense gardens full of taro and banana plants creep between backyards, ignoring boundary fences. Middens can be seen in banks and cliffs. The great wharenui at Maketu marae and the beautiful Wesleyan church opened in 1935 by Princess Te Puea have been carefully maintained. A waterfront museum holding giant ammonites, an old telephone switchboard, portraits of Te Rauparaha and Tawhiao, and a nineteenth century whale boat suggests the town's regard for its history.

After ordering a pint of the 'finest brown wine' at the Kawhia Hotel, Hamish Dewe extracted an ancient piece of paper from his coat, scribbled a couple of lines, and pushed them at me. 'Let's write a Kawhia Canto', he said. 'History in the present. No narrative! No boring messages! Just resonant details.' We filled a few sheets of paper at the hotel, and added a few more on the drive back to Auckland, after Skyler became alarmed by Hamish's driving and ordered him to join me in the backseat, where I had been scribbling a long list of research topics to explore on my next visit to Kawhia.

The Kawhia Canto

Like every other deep-diving mammal,
the I-26 knows when
and where to surface.

A third of the way down Kawhia harbour,
Yukio Mishima climbs into his captain's coat,
pushes at the metal trapdoor, surfaces,
and tugs at the dirty length of rope
that hangs between an aerial
and a periscope.

The Imperial Sun climbs six feet
into the sky, so that its rays fall
onto the western slopes of Pirongia,
and onto the knoll past Maketu pa,
where the Tainui waka lies on its side
like the whale they buried at Muriwai
after last summer's storm.


Time is indivisible.

Time is infinitely divisible.

Cut here.


Auakiterangi was no fool.
He left the kids to push the waka out,
after they had loaded it with kuri, and kiore,
and kumara as heavy as stones.

Even before Hawaiiki was out of sight
the arguments had started.
We saw the koki turn
and head back toward shore,
its green feathers flinching in the wind.
Was the bird a coward, or an omen?
One of the men lunged at the anchor stone
but could not lift it. He threw himself overboard

Night was a relief.
The stars cannot change course.


Once out of sight, everything's
forgotten, like
gorse covering
pa and midden,
mistaken for terraces


Sea-sick in the
Honda, car-sick
in the
ferry: you can't read
The Cantos

You'd be better off
in front, jerking
the gear stick, twisting
the ferry wheel
as if it were
your sister's arm.

Driving, you compose the text
that you read, turning
your head, turning
the wheel, scanning the lines
of radiata saplings, of poplars,
of superbly functional
pylons, or looking ahead,
down, distinguishing
from tar,
watching the road past Pirongia rise
and straighten itself,
like the old bloke who stumbled
outside the Kawhia Hotel -


Te Rauparaha.
His name came


Off Kawhia, nothing's happening. We
aren't even allowed to lay mines.
Yukio passes the time telling
stories about Manchukuo, when
his Dad walked tall with a gun at
his hip and fear all around.
What's the point of skulking like
the souls of the dead?


I am a Pakeha.
Don't ask me about wahi tapu
or portage routes, or other stories that old men
tell to gullible men.

I know how to name mountains
after dead monarchs or
non-commissioned officers.

I know how to plant a theodolite
in the best-drained soil.

I know how to cover this landscape
with squares and rectangles
as regular as syllogisms,
as lonely as Descartes.


The order in which events occur
is not important.

These objects rotate endlessly
through the roadside fields:

sheep, bull, local, goat,
Te Rauparaha's magic horse.


West of Lake Parangi
is conjecture:

a Japanese sub, surfacing like a whale
through a hundred-foot dune;

the mad fisherman from the pub,
casting into lupins
and cutty grass;

a squad of Home Guardsmen,
bayonet charging the wind -


To study history, let




History comes
through the harbour heads.

Now Hotunui stoops to
to fill the bailer,
as another wave washes
over the prow, stings the atua’s
paua shell eyes.

A wave breaks another wave
on the bar. The salt-haze rises
like smoke. The rocks are ready to dive.

The Tainui waka is always
crossing this bar.



Picture of man - dark grey, perhaps rotten
skin, low forehead, each eye as narrow
as a pillbox grill - striding south,
out of a jumble of islands
in East Asia, across the ochre steppes
of Australia, towards Britain's most distant
dominion. His right foot has landed
on Taranaki. The shadow of his bayonet
falls on Kawhia.



The war on gorse will soon be lost.
In a generation or two there'll be fire
on every hillside with cows sidestepping
the thorns.

I'll work at the plantation, breeding radiata
for slaughter. Maybe I'll swap the old car
for some sheep.


To prepare for invasion
retreat. We dig tank traps
at Puti Point, traps deep enough to hold the Japs
but wide enough for the snipers
we hide on the hill -
possum trappers, deer stalkers, Great War men,
and the odd alkie or TB case
who got past the Draft Board -
who have six shells each
to defend the town.

After we shoot our loads
there are huts in the hills,
there are pots of possum meat turning
on woodfire stoves, there are maps
left by the Native Land Court,
there are high-flying clouds that might hide a kittyhawk
bringing arms south from Auckland, or America.

To retreat is to resist. Just ask


Because it has happened
like this before
(wave striking wave on the bar,
the rocks rising suddenly,
like harpooned whales,
out of the haze)
we count the minutes
to Te Maika,
we count the ferry's lurches,
and the loads of foam
the sea throws up.

We count the pier's rotten teeth,
we count the windows
on the baches,
we count the cracks
on the windows,
we count the cabbage tree heads
shaken in assent,
we count the fishing boats listing
in the storm.

The world is repetition.
The world is real.


Tawhiao broke the first window.
He led the group of hotheads,
those hauhau recalcitrants
who lamented peace
who wanted to hold on to Te Rohe Potae,
who found beacons in the harbour
and broke them in half,
who used the buoy Bryce floated
for target practice,
who smashed up the first Pakeha store.

Wellington was not amused.
Bryce sent the Hinemoa sailing north,
loaded with one hundred and twenty
armed constables.
Most of them were drunk.


My tupuna sailed from Ulster
one hundred and twenty-four years ago
in a ship called the Ruapehu.
Four years earlier the Hinemoa had helped 'open'
the King Country to Pakeha.

Why did we give our waka another people's names?
Did we want their language
as well as their land?


He'd heard us talking
about imperialism.
He was pissed, not bitter.

"I'll tell you,
the Japs did not surrender.
We stopped them at Midway,
smoked them out of Canal,
turned them to glass and asphalt
at Hiroshima,
but they came
the bastards came back.

Instead of conquering this coast
they cart it away, kilo by tonne,
on the ships that pull up off Taharoa,
where the tube from the ironsand mine goes out.
We buy our beaches back
as hondas and toyotas -
Jap crap, scrap metal
in the making.

The Japs are mosquitoes.
They take small bites, but their appetite
is infinite."


Te Rauparaha planted fire,
harvested bracken,
on Horoure pa,
beneath the tranverse ditch
where palisades were planted
in time for the siege
so that he might also harvest
the heads of


The dead shift, uneasy,
beneath the gorse, moving
between bleached mussel-shells
and afterbirths of the
generation just gone.

Pasture robs them of their
mystery, covering,
they slowly drain with the
ironsand to Japan,
anima machina,
eat Roundup, pass away,
or are daily starved as
we pool in the city,
driving second-hand cars
through dairy-plain wastelands.


The order in which events occur
is all-important.

Today is June the 5th, 2010.
An inch of rain flushes the gutters
of South Auckland.
Gerry Brownlee's flat face and quadruple chin
fill the TV screen.
At Te Maika the tractors rust.

A third of the way down the Kawhia harbour
a Japanese submarine has surfaced.

Captain Mishima stands on deck and stares at a sky
lit by the red rays of the Emperor's sun.
He notices blackbacked gulls, a petrel,
what might have been a hawk.

Where are the Zeroes, diving
at five o'clock, shitting their hot bricks
on the wharf, the hotel, the converted courthouse?
Where is the frigate, where are the landing craft
surfing in to shore?

On the lookout above Tainui Street
a gaggle of tourists - Germans, Poms, a coupe of Japs -
climb out of their bus, and aim their cameras
at Captain Mishima's whale.

The boozers at the Blue Chook
wander outside, wondering who
might be shooting a movie.

Captain Mishima is just following orders.
He stands and stares up at the wrong type of wings.

The order in which events occur
is not important.