Monday, August 30, 2010

Smithyman's magic box

[I was pleased when Brett Cross, the boss of Titus Books, told me last week that Creative New Zealand has agreed to fund the publication of Private Bestiary, the book of the late great Kendrick Smithyman's unpublished poems which I have been assembling, in my rather haphazard way, over recent months. I've blogged about one or two of the poems selected for Private Bestiary, but I haven't really discussed the place where I found the poems. Reproduced below is an excerpt from a rough draft of the introduction to the forthcoming selection; I need to check a few of the details in the excerpt, especially the details of the description of Smithyman's old study, which I haven't visited for something like a year, and perhaps misremember. My fellow Smithymaniacs are invited to correct any blunders in the comments box...]

Kendrick Smithyman reverenced libraries, and ventured into them whenever he could. Years ago, in the tiny archive at the back of the Hokianga District Museum in Omapere, I talked with with an elderly volunteer who had taught alongside Smithyman at Belmont Primary School in the late ‘50s. When I asked whether Kendrick had enjoyed teaching, she smiled. ‘He preferred the library' she remembered. 'He was always reading.'

After he became a tutor in the University of Auckland’s English Department in 1963, Smithyman had the opportunity to explore a much larger library. Smithyman took his reading seriously – in his long poem ‘Reading the Maps An Academic Exercise’ he talks of going to the library to do some ‘hunting’. He was an omnivorous reader, as happy digesting medieval theology as modernist poetry or murder mysteries. In the pre-digital era, anybody who wanted to borrow a book from the University of Auckland library had to write their name on a yellow card that was held at the lending counter until the book was returned and the card could be replaced. This system made it possible to take a book from the library’s shelves and note the various people who had borrowed it over the years. Smithyman’s borrowings from the university library were so frequent and so diverse that in the 1980s a group of bored postgraduate English students reportedly made a game out of wandering into the library, prowling the aisles, and trying to find a book that their department's senior tutor had not borrowed.
After he moved into a Northcote bungalow with his second wife Margaret Edgcumbe in 1981, Smithyman set about creating his own library. The house’s basement was large enough to hold most of the thousands of books that Smithyman had accumulated over the years. The poet fitted shelves to the walls, and arranged his volumes by subject matter, so that New Zealand literature faded almost imperceptibly into New Zealand history, and New Zealand history gave way to archaeology.

Like any serious library, Smithyman’s basement had an archive. At the far end of the room a collection of his papers – poems, drafts of poems, inward correspondence, drafts of lectures and academic articles, itineraries for research trips, yellowing bills, and much else besides – sat securely inside a small family of boxes.

Smithyman placed a large desk, complete with creaky draws, an ashtray, and a typewriter, at the edge of his library, close to a view of an elegantly overgrown backyard, and worked happily on a slew of new manuscripts. By the time he died at the end of 1995, Smithyman had added thousands of new pages to his archive, as he turned out poems, translations, book reviews, and revisions of old work from the room he described as his ‘cave/ under the house’. For admirers of Smithyman’s poetry, the Northcote basement acquired a certain mystique – like Proust’s cork-lined room, Dylan Thomas’ boatshed, and Malcolm Lowry’s Vancouver Island shack, it was a place where the raw materials of language were turned into great art.

Smithyman appears to have begun organising his papers and assembling a collection of his poems in 1960. Over three and a half decades he created four different versions of his Collected Poems, as he sorted and resorted, and revised and again revised his manuscripts. Too large to fit into a single volume, the latest version of the Collected was published online by Holloway Press and Mudflats Webworks in 2004. The three alternative versions of the Collected Poems sit in the Smithyman Papers at the University of Auckland, along with a collection of inward correspondence and a huge stash of unpublished manuscripts.

When the University of Auckland's Michele Leggott sent some of her postgraduate English students into the Smithyman Papers to learn the ways of the archive, they brought back reports of disorder. I can confirm these reports. Despite the heroic efforts of Special Collections staff, Smithyman's unpublished manuscripts are a wilderness of unfinished, perhaps unfinishable drafts, unreadable emendments, poems filed out of order, or according to some ordering principle known only to their author, cryptic notes about the meaning or lack of meaning of one historical event or another, receipts for purchases from long-demolished shops, unfinished letters to unnamed friends, and yellowing newspaper cuttings.

Like Smithyman's poems, the Smithyman Papers seem designed to resist easy summary, and to send readers off on strange mental tangents. Perhaps the Smithyman Papers should be considered the New Zealand equivalent of the huge box that the great Portugese poet Fernando Pessoa used to store everything he wrote. By the time Pessoa died, his box contained many thousands of manuscripts. Over the decades, as book publishers and the editors of journals dipped into it for material, the box earned a reputation as a magical, bottomless object whose contents were always in flux. Like Pessoa's box, the Smithyman Papers may be better suited to journeys of discovery than to academic cataloguing. Smithyman's poem 'Peter Durey's Story', which describes the wayward archiving habits of a couple of scholars, perhaps hints at his attitude toward the hoard of unpublished words that he left to the world:

"When Moyle retired they found a desk
drawer crammed with bunches of keys.
Moyle was systematic, librarians have to be.
Each bunch was labelled
‘I don’t know what these are keys to.’
A whole drawerful – he was in charge of
complicated information retrieval services."
‘I don’t know what these are keys to.’
That’s how people think universities work,
finding things which will unlock.

A notable social scientist used to teach
in a boarding house not now remembered clearly.
He was brilliant at seminars, his lectures were
off the cuff, publishers sought him,
students ran scared, he was so much in command,
One day at his office
he was very proud of himself.
Sleeves rolled, glasses dazzling, he stacked
oh it must have been close on a hundred
biggish flat boxes, the kind which dress shops used.
"Look at that now, years of it! At last,
I’ve got it all arranged." Each box, labelled.

The first said Field Notes, Classified.
The second, Field Notes, Classified.
The ninety-plus others, Field Notes, Unclassified.
That’s how people think
university people work, bringing to order,
all the time collecting, finding out, systematising.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Getting technical

Over the last decade the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts has undergone the most radical and controversial set of changes in its one hundred and twenty year history. After being forcibly incorporated into a new-fangled ‘super-faculty’ run by Sharman Pretty, an expert on downsizing hired by the university’s right-wing vice chancellor John Hood, the school saw its traditional sub-departments of painting, sculpture, intermedia, printmedia, te toi hou and photography disestablished, as jobs and costs were cut. Pretty eventually left her post, after legal action by aggrieved staff, walkouts by students, and damning articles in the mass media, but the changes she brought to Elam have not been reversed.

The institution is now dedicated, officially at least, to a doctrine of ‘inter-disciplinarism’, which holds that students ought to be able to produce works in a range of media, from painting to sculpture to film to photography, without having to undertake the tiresome business of acquiring the technical skills normally possessed by practitioners in these fields. The budding artists will produce ideas - or, rather, ‘concepts’ – and, if necessary, other people will be available to turn their concepts into artworks. In 2005, at the height of the chaos produced by Pretty’s revolution, veteran Elam staffer Carole Shepherd called the inter-disciplinary approach to art ‘crazy’, because it assumed that ‘everybody can everything’. Speaking out at the same time, John Turner, a senior lecturer in Elam’s doomed photography sub-department, accused Pretty and her allies of creating an ‘unprecedented level of confusion, suspicion, anger, and fear’ and condemned their ‘vapid’ thinking.

Key representatives of the new Elam orthodoxy are Michael Parekowhai and p.mule, artists who are primarily concept-creators, and who have often been partially reliant on other people to turn their concepts into sculptures and installations. The approach to art which p.mule and Parekowhai represent fitted the downsizing agenda of Pretty and Hood well, because it provided an excuse for the sacking of staff members who taught obsolete skills like painting and photography. Conceptual art may have begun in the 1960s as an avowedly Marxist challenge to the absurdities of capitalism in general and the art market in particular, but four decades later it has proved, at Elam at least, quite compatible with neo-liberalism.

The neo-liberal revolution at Elam may have been successful, but it has led to some contradictory outcomes. The worst way to kill an avant-garde movement is to install it as an orthodoxy; it is no surprise, then, that a number of recent events at Elam suggest a growing reaction against the hyper-conceptual approach to art. The large crowds of students that turned out to see Wall, Ellen Portch’s recent cycle of intricate, mysterious drawings offer evidence of an enthusiasm for art that values technical skill as well as intellectual ingenuity. Although university bureaucrats claim that Elam has left behind the bad old days of sub-departments and intensive technical training, the continued enthusiasm of many students for these practices, has necessitated greater dependence on teaching by a group of 'technical' workers capable of supporting the ‘stars’.

The recent Homework exhibition at Elam’s B431 gallery showcased work by the eight permanent members of the school’s technical staff. Although these staff members have diverse specialities, and therefore work in different media, their show had a unity which can perhaps be related to the peculiar niche they occupy in the ecology of twenty-first century Elam.

Although their primary task is to share their knowledge and skills with Elam students, technical staff are also expected to maintain what the university calls ‘independent practices’ as producers. In the turbulent atmosphere of contemporary Elam, this double requirement has sometimes led to tension and confrontation. Homework was dominated, spatially at least, by a large and rather beautiful kayak which woodworker Nick Waterson exhibited under the title Up a New Zealand River, that’s the Story. Waterson’s contribution to the show was an act of defiance against Elam managers, who for some years battled to stop him using his workshop on campus to build and store kayaks, on the grounds that such activity falls outside his job description. Waterson eventually forced the bureaucrats to back down, and when he was asked to contribute to Homework he insisted on planting his largest available kayak in the middle of B431.

With its smooth timber and elegant yet efficient curves, Waterson’s creation has attracted the attention of connoisseurs of aquatechnology. Canoeist Paul McDonald, who won a swag of Olympic gold medals for New Zealand in the 1980s, could be seen admiring Waterson’s craftsmanship at the launch party for Homework.

Because of the complexly allusive way it is presented, Waterson’s kayak demanded attention as a work of art, as well as a piece of superb craftsmanship. With its dominant position in the centre of the exhibition space, the boat resembled a miniature version of Te Toki and Te Winika, the nineteenth century war canoes that have pride of place on the ground floors of the Auckland War Memorial Museum and the Waikato Museum and Art Gallery respectively. But if the placement of Waterson’s kayak recalled the magnificent waka on the other side of Grafton Gully and its counterpart a couple of hours' drive away on the edge of the Waikato, the sleek, varnished surfaces of his craft contrasted with the bold and fantastic carvings which cover Te Toki and Te Winika. By naming his exhibit Up a New Zealand River, that’s the Story, Waterson perhaps alluded to Jane Mander’s novel The Story of a New Zealand River, the study of colonialism and clashing cultures which inspired Jane Campion’s movie The Piano. A note under Waterson’s title informed viewers that his kayak had been fashioned from both indigenous kahikatea and exotic timber.
It was possible to view Waterson’s creation, with its self-conscious use of both autochthonous and exotic materials, its relatively modest proportions, and its modernist look, as a sort of wry, twenty-first century Pakeha response to the great waka-building tradition represented by Te Toki and Te Winika. In the era before the building of large meeting houses, waka often expressed the mana and recorded the history of the iwi and hapu which travelled in them. With its carved characters from Tainui history, Te Winika, for instance, was a mobile gallery, a continual reminder of whakapapa and tradition. With its stylish but unexpressive surfaces, its room for only one passenger, rather than a tribe, and the steep price tag it carried, Waterson’s ‘waka’ perhaps told us a good deal about the dominant culture of twenty-first century New Zealand society.

Of course, Nick Waterson’s kayak remained, despite its elaborate title and gallery setting, a functional object, as well as an artwork. Its dual nature might remind us of the split identities of famous modernist works like Marcel Duchamp’s ‘readymades’. When Duchamp placed a snow shovel in a gallery and named it In Advance of a Broken Arm in 1915, he raised questions about the nature of art, and the distinction between an art object and an object meant for use in the ‘real’ world, which remain controversial today. It is not hard to see why Waterson might be interested in these questions. As a member of Elam's 'technical' staff he is regarded, by Elam management at least, as ontologically distinct from 'artists' like p.mule. He is supposed to assist Elam students with technical aspects of their work, like wood cutting and carving, so that they can become better artists. Where, though, is the boundary between the technical and the artistic, the world of mundane production and the hallowed world of art?

Nick Waterson was not the only contributor to Homework who seemed interested in the boundary between art and non-art. Lee Elliot’s Duck Creek Concept Plan resembled a large drawing made by a landscape architect, but the paths, water, and areas of vegetation it depicted in blue ink were unexplained by labels or annotations. Instead of anything so quotidian, Elliot placed thick red lines here and there on his plan, so that it looked like one of the mysterious and sinister maps that Alain Robbe-Grillet sometimes included in his novels. Did Elliot’s red lines indicate some obscure and perhaps dangerous presence, or the parameters of some bizarrely-shaped building or monument, or did they have an altogether simpler explanation?

Darren Glass's curious contribution to Homework also raised questions about the relationship between art objects and the phenomena of the 'ordinary' world. Glass is a photographer in love with the primitive, lenseless pinhole cameras of the nineteenth century. Rather than exhibit any of his photographs, he placed one of the elaborate pinhole cameras he designs in B431. The device's dozens of pinholes and unusual shape mean that, despite its primitiveness, it is able to record scenes simultaneously from many angles, like a film crew on a big-budget movie. By exhibiting his camera, Glass seemed to be asking us to reconsider our notions of the distinction between art and the tools which help us make art, as well as our preconceptions about what constitutes high technology.

On the wall opposite Glass's machine, near the back of B431, graphic designer Lucas Doolan had hung four untitled, computer-generated images. Flocks of numbers and tiny chalices floated out of spiralling reds and greens on surfaces that looked painted from a distance but proved on closer inspection to be impeccably smooth. Doolan’s pictures could be considered as abstract compositions, of the sort that prolonged exposure to glossy reproductions of Mark Rothko or Hans Hoffman might inspire, or as massively ambitious attempts to depict some moment of cosmic chaos. With their eruptions of colour and obscure equations, they might have been printouts of some inscrutable super-computer’s predictions or reconstructions of the end or the beginning of the universe. Ellen Portch’s two contributions to Homework were more down to earth. Her paintings of the artist Frida Kahlo and the novelist and nonsense poet Mervyn Peake were smaller and less visually abrasive than most of her earlier exhibited work. Portch has painted many portraits over the years – her 2006 exhibition at Old Government House, which depicted politicians of the late twentieth century with something less than reverence, is particularly worthy of mention – but she has generally stylised her subjects, by covering their faces in complex networks of lines that have sometimes resembled moko, and at other times resembled wounds. In Portch’s new works the writhing lines are softened by layers of pale grey paint, so that the faces of Kahlo and Peake have a certain tranquility.

There is nothing new in questioning the distinctions that Western society makes between art and other examples of human creativity. In the nineteenth century William Morris ran utopian workshop-factories where worker-artists created objects – carpets, tiles, rolls of wallpaper, pieces of furniture – which were both functional and idiosyncratically expressive. Through the second half of the twentieth century Hans-Georg Gadamer railed against the ‘arts precincts’ and ‘arts festivals’ that were increasingly popular in Western cities, arguing that both symbolised the notion that art was something which took place at a physical and intellectual distance from other, more ‘essential’ human activities, like politics and business. Homework was an exhibition which suggested that the distinctions between art and craft, and between the artist and technician, are much less secure than the likes of Sharman Pretty might suppose.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Ian Richards on New Zealand literature, Japanese whaling, and the economics of exile

[EP Thompson used to argue that the lives of individual men and women were worth studying in detail, because they could be 'keyholes' through which a broader view of the past could be glimpsed. In 1997, the scholar and short story writer Ian Richards published To Bed at Noon, a book which made the short and tragic life of Maurice Duggan into a 'keyhole' through which New Zealand society in the middle decades of the twentieth century could be examined in all its complexity. Richards' book quickly won enthusiastic reviews, and has established itself as a New Zealand classic.

Richards, who has lived for many years in Japan, has complemented To Bed at Noon with studies of Janet Frame, Maurice Shadbolt, and Duggan's old mate and drinking partner, Kendrick Smithyman. In recent years he has maintained a website calledNo Frills New Zealand Literature, on which examples of both his critical essays and his short fiction are reproduced. I chatted to Ian recently about exile, silence, cunning, flying, and whaling...]

Your biography of Maurice Duggan is extraordinarily rich in details about that writer's historical and social context - it opens a series of windows on subjects like the history of the North Shore, the relationship between sports and the arts in New Zealand, and the relationship between the Roman Catholic community and the rest of the country. Were you conscious of writing about social, as well as literary, history?

No, I had nothing so grand in mind. Mainly I was aware of an intimidating responsibility to real people--and to a real life, which I had somehow to assemble from thousands of bits of information. On the first day I sat down to write, as opposed to gathering research, I spent all morning working away at an opening paragraph and by lunchtime I had completely failed. I had no idea what to put in and what to leave out. At that point I got so panicky--because I was heavily committed to this project--that I started suffering heart palpitations. This sort of thing went on for several days of struggle until I reached the paragraph where my subject was finally being born. Then it dawned on me, at last, that what I was writing was a novel, and that I had a character and I had to tell his story. And that’s what I did--I wrote the book as a novel, with a timeline, characters, motives etc. I was surprised later to discover that not all biographers do this. But I guess that there’s a naturally novel-ish inclusiveness to the form of biography that may explain its current popularity, because I think it’s possible to write an interesting life of absolutely anybody.

With his ornate prose style and unabashed intellectualism, Duggan was perhaps seen as the odd man out, or one of the odd men out, in Kiwi literature during his lifetime. How do you see his reputation now? Do you think your book has helped spur interest in his work?

I think To Bed at Noon did stimulate some interest in Duggan’s work for a while. Elizabeth Caffin told me that AUP even sold some backlist copies of the Collected Stories. But all the male writers of mid-twentieth century New Zealand literature are neglected at the moment. It’s a situation no one could ever have imagined when they were active, and it’s thoroughly unbalanced our view of our own literary past. They’ve become like the ‘fly-over’ states in America. People study the late-Victorian writers and deconstruct them and show why they couldn’t handle this or that, and then…whoooosh, we’re in the seventies and it’s all about women and Maori. Now, I’m not about to put down the emergence of women and Maori writers. But Duggan is a perfect example of why it’s a mistake just to ignore the mid-twentieth-century males and not apply to them the standards we use for the writing of the present. ‘Along Rideout Road that Summer’, for instance, would make a wonderful case-study for a feminist critic: Fanny Hohepa is plainly a lot more empowered by Duggan than she appears to be in the eyes of Buster O’Leary. And to fail to ‘get’ Duggan is to fail to get his contemporary, Janet Frame, because both of them were stylists who spent a great deal of time matching the form of what they were writing to its content. You wrote a long, wonderfully well-researched essay on Kendrick Smithyman's 1966 poem, 'Flying to Palmerston'. What made you want to write about this text, rather than about one of Smithyman's thousands of other poems?

It wasn’t really supposed to happen at all! I got to know Kendrick a few years before his death, when I was researching the Duggan biography. Kendrick’s occasional outward bluster did nothing to conceal a heart of gold, and he was immensely kind and helpful as the book grew into shape. I think he also supplied a lot of behind-the-scenes assistance to the Michael King biography of Sargeson and the Keith Ovenden biography of Davin. Anyway, being from Palmerston North myself, I remember teasing Kendrick on one occasion about the poem ‘Flying to Palmerston’--that’s a bit like poking a bear with a stick--and when Peter Simpson published the Smithyman Collected Poems online I re-read ‘Flying to P’ and made the acquaintance of a lot of other Smithyman poems. I’ve probably only read a small fraction of Kendrick’s oeuvre--as who hasn’t?--but it dragged me in and I thought I’d like to write something. William Broughton and Margaret Edgcumbe were both very forthcoming with background information.

You have created a website and placed a generous amount of your writing there. What is behind your decision to publish in this way? Do you feel that the book and the offline journal are becoming less important, in the twenty-first century?

The reason why I placed my material online was simple survival--no more than that. Living overseas kills any chance you may have of making the contacts necessary for publishing, and it ruins the ones you may already have. But over and above that, the economics of publishing in a market as tiny as New Zealand’s is pretty screwy anyway. Without government grants almost nothing would be published and with no library purchasing almost nothing would be sold…so everything starts to look uncomfortably like vanity publishing after a while. I think the Internet is one natural solution to this problem. My own little website is completely homemade and costs me nothing at all--even though I’m very un-web-savvy. But I rather like the cheek of its obvious amateurishness. There’s a long tradition of fine printing in NZ that’s always struck me as a bit precious, and it seems to me that if One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is photocopied and stapled together, then it’s still a great novel. Anyway, to be completely honest, I just meant to put some unpublishable literary essays on the website, and then egotism took over and I thought, why not put unpublishable fiction on there too?

When did you take up residence in Japan, and what motivated the shift? Is living in Japan a help or a hindrance to your literary endeavours?

I gave up a lucrative career as a waiter to come to Japan in the early 1980s, then went back to NZ and spent time on the dole and a number of years working for less income than a primary school teacher. Finally I came back to Japan again in 1996. I work at a university here, and that means I get long holidays which are good for writing activities--although the glory days of the Japanese economy are gone, and I suspect that if I was starting out now I’d be going to China. Sometimes I’m a little disappointed at how disconnected I am from the life around me in Japan, but I suspect a part of that is my personality anyway. Being resident in Japan does hurt any sort of literary career in a way that, perhaps, being in Britain or America might not, but…all right, I’ll say it: I think there’s a certain visceral resentment in NZ towards expat Kiwi writers wherever they live, unless they manage the trick of success overseas. But I know that if I’d stayed in Palmerston North I never would have written another word, and yet oddly, from a distance, I can write about it as home.

Do you take a strong interest in Japanese literature? Are there trends in the writing of your adopted homeland that New Zealanders ought to know about?

No…and I think not.

Was it tricky being a resident of Japan during the Peter Bethune trial?

No, not at all. I think there’s a strong fund of goodwill towards NZ in Japan that seems very resilient. Also, I think Japanese people feel they can’t influence the politics of their own government very much--certainly, not in the direct way we do. Active involvement in politics can come at a high price in a country were you may be stabbed by a rightist, there’s little social welfare and the law is erratic. As a result, for better or worse, ordinary Japanese people often seem very disconnected from politics, which may explain all those Japanese tourists who happily go whale-watching in Kaikoura and then casually watch the minke sushi going round on the conveyor belt in the sushi-bar in Tokyo. It’s often been said that one of the reasons why ordinary Japanese people are honest, intelligent and well behaved is because the Japanese authorities take care of being corrupt, stupid and immoral for them.

What are your current research interests and plans?

I’m working on a novel, and have been for a long time, which means that everything else in life is just displacement activity.

Footnote: since we've been talking about whaling, I wanted to recommend an opinion piece which Dougal McNeill, another Kiwi writer who has sojourned in Japan, published recently in the Japan Times. Dougal's argument that the anti-whaling movement has a 'racist undercurrent' seems all too credible to me, especially given some of the nasty rhetoric that the anti-whalers used back in 2006.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

John Ansell and the power of bad ideas

I am occasionally asked why I bother to debate some of the more eccentric contributors to the comments boxes of this blog. 'Why do you waste time arguing with that guy?' friends will enquire. 'Nobody takes such ridiculous ideas seriously.'

Unfortunately, as the history of doctrines as different as phrenology, Lysenkoism, and neo-liberalism shows, there is no necessary correlation between an idea's reasonableness and its influence. Bad ideas can be popular and powerful ideas. The recent activities of John Ansell, who surely counts as one of more eccentric contributors to debates on this blog, highlight the undeserved influence bad thinking can have.

I hadn't heard of Ansell until he turned up at this blog a fortnight ago to take part in a discussion underneath a post I had made on Hone Harawira. To give him his due, Ansell was prepared to respond pleasantly to the points of debaters who disagreed with him. But the views Ansell expressed were anything but pleasant. Ansell looks with horror on the Maori renaissance of the past thirty years, and regards the key achievements of that renaissance, like recognition of the Treaty of Waitangi, state support for Maori culture and language, and the return of some land and resources stolen from iwi, as mortal dangers to the people of New Zealand.

Ansell's interpretation of recent New Zealand history is rooted in his conviction that there is something perverse and dangerous about Kiwis who identify as Maori and talk of Maori rights.

During the discussion at this blog, Ansell argued that, because contemporary Maori are not 'pure-blooded' - ie, because they generally have at least some non-Maori ancestry - they are Maori only by personal choice. Maori culture is, Ansell suggested, effectively a 'religion', like Catholicism or Islam. Maori culture can, in fact, be likened to a backward-looking, particularly irrational religion, because, according to Ansell, it is incompatible with most of the innovations of the modern world, like sophisticated technology and notions of individual human rights. Just as the state should not be in the business of recognising and funding Wahhabi Islam and theocratic Catholicism, so it should not be in the business or providing any funding to the Maori 'religion'. State funding for perversities like te reo is no better than state funding for madrasses, or for the Latin mass.

What Ansell has done, whether he fully realises it or not, is rework and weave together a number of motifs developed by Kiwi bigots over the past century and a half. He invokes the scientific racism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when he claims that the only really authentic Maori were the 'pure-blooded' types who signed the Treaty back in 1840. He reworks the assimilationist ideology which was such a part of Pakeha state policy for so long when he claims that the descendants of the 'real' Maori who signed the Treaty have become honorary whites, because they have been absorbed into New Zealand's capitalist economy and use modern technology.

And Ansell draws on the sort of paranoia that fuelled anti-Fenianism, anti-Asian racism, and the Tohunga Suppression Act when he presents contemporary Maori culture as the product of a perverse and irrational desire to reject the modern world. For Ansell, Maori culture and notions of Maori rights are symptoms of a neurosis.

It is worrying that Ansell is not simply a deluded individual, but a man with some degree of influence over an organisation of some size. He is in the news this week as the designer of a series of billboards for the Coastal Coalition, an organisation set up recently to campaign against National's decision to repeal Labour's 2004 Seabed and Foreshore legislation.

By taking us back to the era before Labour's controversial law, National has recognised that Maori have some customary rights over the coastline, and has allowed the extent and meaning of these rights to be tested in court. To Ansell and the thousands of angry Pakeha who have pledged support for the Coastal Coalition, these small concessions to the Maori Party somehow equal a catastrophe. Commenting at Kiwiblog yesterday, a member of the Coastal Coalition expressed the apocalyptically racist thinking that seems to drive the group:

This country is now irrevocably fucked as a western democracy...This asshole treasonous bastard John Key and his quisling party is planning to RELINQUISH THE COUNTRY’S OWNERSHIP OF ITS OWN BEACHES AND FORESHORE!!! This will inevitably open up claims and counter-claims indefinitely about what can or cannot be done with this vital strategic asset which, up until now, has been owned by all New Zealanders in the name of the ‘Crown’...please note that soon the main primary escape route for Kiwis, Australia, will be closed so either get out while you can or stand up and fight.

One only has to look at the billboards Ansell has designed for the Coastal Coalition to see the influence of the worldview he holds. The boards treat 'iwi' not as Maori descent groups, but as sinister cabals plotting to do ordinary New Zealanders out of their rights. Such a bizarre understanding of the term 'iwi' is only possible if one defines Maori identity as the product of a perverse and dangerous personal choice, rather than as a product of whakapapa and culture.

One of Ansell's billboards takes a feather cloak, an item regarded as a taonga by virtually all iwi, no matter what their geographic location, history, and traditional political loyalties, and makes it into a strongly negative symbol. Ansell can only make this appalling error because he labours under the delusion that Maori are, without exception, converts to a 'religion' which opposes and threatens all that is good in contemporary New Zealand society.

Apparently there is a shortage of Maori members of the Coastal Coalition. I imagine that lefties would feel pretty lonely there too, but that hasn't stopped Chris Trotter from pledging his support for the group.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Can Chris Laidlaw still play a team game?

As longer-suffering readers of this blog will know, I have been involved for the last year in a minor controversy involving Radio New Zealand, the Broadcasting Standards Authority, and one of this country's longest-serving fascists, Kerry Bolton.

In May of last year I chatted for twenty minutes or so to Chris Laidlaw, the host of Radio New Zealand's Sunday morning Ideas programme, about anti-semitism, Holocaust denial, and far right politics in New Zealand. In the course of my interview with Laidlaw I discussed Kerry Bolton's history of involvement with anti-semitic outfits like the National Front and Frederick Toben's Adelaide Institute, his role in the development of the crackpot theory that white people established a civilisation on these islands thousands of years ago, before being conquered by barbaric Polynesians, and his attempts to associate himself with progressive protest movements, like Kiwi campaigns against US imperialism and Israeli aggression in the Middle East.

After my chat with Chris Laidlaw was broadcast I was contacted by a series of people - Jews who had suffered from anti-semitism in this country, veterans of the war against Nazism who were appalled by the Hitlerite rhetoric of Bolton and his friends, and scholars who had accumulated large quantities of information about the antipodean far right. They were all pleased to hear a public excoriation of Kerry Bolton's politics.

There was, however, one person who didn't appreciate what I had to say on Radio New Zealand. Displaying almost sublime chutzpah, Kerry Bolton wrote to the Broadcasting Standards Authority to complain that I had misrepresented him. Bolton claimed, in all seriousness, that he had never been an anti-semite, and that he had only joined and held senior positions in outfits like the National Front because he wanted to turn rank and file members of these organisations away from their Hitlerite beliefs and violent practices. At the same time as Bolton wrote his letter to the BSA, many of the webpages on which he had published pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish articles mysteriously disappeared from the internet.

It would be fair to say that the Broadcasting Standards Authority's decision to uphold Bolton's complaints was met with incredulity by media commentators and by observers of the far right fringe of Kiwi politics. Political commentator Chris Trotter called the BSA's decision 'an outrage'; Professor Dov Bing of Waikato University, who is perhaps New Zealand's leading expert on anti-semitism, said it was 'ridiculous'; and bloggers with a range of political views joined in the chorus of disapproval.

It is not hard to see why the BSA's decision was received so badly. Kerry Bolton has been amongst this country's highest-profile fascists, anti-semites, and Holocaust deniers for more than three decades. Besides playing a leading role in groups with names like the New Zealand Fascist Union, the Church of Odin, and the National Front, he has written and published texts with titles like The Holocaust Myth: the sceptical inquiry and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in context. How, observers wondered, could the BSA possibly fail to recognise Bolton's ideology and history?

The BSA added to the bewilderment by stating that it had refused to decide whether Bolton was or was not an anti-semite and Holocaust denier. The organisation had not bothered to do any research into Bolton's views and activities, but had instead relied on some information Radio New Zealand and I had relayed to it in a couple of e mails. When the webpages these e mails had referred to turned out to have disappeared from the internet, the BSA appears to have decided to give Bolton the benefit of the doubt.

The BSA made its decision near the end of December, and within a couple of months Radio New Zealand was making representations to the organisation, asking it to reconsider its verdict. When these requests were refused by the BSA, Radio New Zealand made the unprecedented decision to take the organisation to the High Court. Drawing on the research of several scholars, Radio New Zealand presented the court with a vast amount of evidence for Bolton's fascism, anti-semitism, and Holocaust denial. The High Court recently ruled in Radio New Zealand's favour, and ordered the BSA to reconsider its verdict.

The High Court's verdict is of course a victory for advocates of free speech and opponents of anti-semitism. The World War Two veterans and Jewish community leaders who had been distressed by the BSA's decision to whitewash a long-time fascist will be delighted by the decision.

Unfortunately, Radio New Zealand's Sunday morning host has taken a little of the gloss off the High Court victory. At the end of its report on the court's verdict, the Dominion Post quoted Chris Laidlaw as saying that the case was an "example" of the "hazardous" nature of broadcasting. Laidlaw told the paper that "what happens when people are live on radio is over to them – you can only control it so much."

Chris Laidlaw's comments imply that he interviewed me live on air last year. More seriously, they imply that my remarks about Kerry Bolton were in some way reckless or untrue, or both, and therefore ought to have been subjected to some form of "control".

The fact is that Laidlaw did not interview me live last year. I talked to him on a Friday morning, and the recording of my chat was woven into a programme which was not broadcast until Sunday week. At no point, either during my interview or in the days before it was broadcast, did Laidlaw raise concerns about any of the comments I had made about Kerry Bolton.

Laidlaw's insinuation that my remarks were in some way "hazardous" flies in the face not only of the verdicts of knowledgeable observers like Trotter and Bing, but of the strategy of Radio New Zealand, which has gone to the time and trouble of taking the BSA to the High Court in an effort to get that organisation to reverse its support for Bolton. Laidlaw's insinuation seems particularly strange, in the aftermath of the High Court's decision to back Radio New Zealand against the BSA.

I don't know Chris Laidlaw personally, and can only guess at the reasons for his comments to the Dominion Post. If he really has decided, at this very late stage, to agree with Kerry Bolton's charges against me, then I hope he will explain the reasons for this about-face. If he doesn't doubt the reasonableness of what I said, and therefore the justice of the case that Radio New Zealand took to the High Court, then I hope he will retract the comments he made to the Dominion Post. Laidlaw was a much-capped halfback for the All Blacks in the 1960s. I hope he hasn't forgotten how to play a team game.

Florence Coen tells the story of how she was unfairly dismissed under John Key's new 90 day law

Auckland Fairness at Work Rallies 21 & 22 August

Auckland * Wellington * Christchurch * Dunedin

Auckland 1pm, Saturday 21st August QE2 Square (bottom of Queen St, opposite Britomart)

Wellington 1pm, Saturday 21st August Civic Square

Christchurch 1pm, Saturday 21st August Cathedral Square

Dunedin 11am, Sunday 22nd August Assemble at Dental School, Great King Street March to rally at the Octagon

Proposed changes to employment legislation will affect your rights and conditions at work. Help prevent these changes!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Different spaces

Perhaps because there is something about art that is incorrigibly ineffable, we love to collect and anatomise the tools and trivial possessions of artists. Cormac McCarthy's old typewriter fetched twenty thousand dollars at an auction, the rickety pieces of furniture Syd Barrett left in his Cambridge semi-detached went for similar prices, and some of James Joyce's letters to his wife are still being fought over, despite the fact that they very likely tell us more about his sexual tastes than his literary method.

Arguably, an artist's greatest tool is the space in which she or he works. It is no surprise, then, that a mystique has grown up around the workshops of writers. After he moved into a Northcote bungalow with his second wife Margaret Edgcumbe in 1981, Kendrick Smithyman placed a large desk, complete with creaky draws, an ashtray, and a typewriter, in his new home's capacious basement, close to a sliding door that provided a view of an elegantly overgrown backyard, and worked happily on a slew of new manuscripts. For admirers of Smithyman’s poetry, the Northcote basement acquired a certain mystique – like Proust’s cork-lined room, Dylan Thomas’ boatshed, and Malcolm Lowry’s Vancouver Island shack, it was a place where the raw materials of language were turned into great art.

As different and distant from each other as they were, the workshops of Thomas, Proust, Lowry, and Smithyman all shared certain characteristics. They were relatively small, they were cluttered, and they were shadowy. The Auckland University of Technology's new Creative Writing Centre offers a very different vision of what a scribbler's work space should look like. A series of brightly-lit, minimally decorated rooms on the third floor of one of the hundred anonymous towers which make up Auckland's Central Business District, the centre might be interpreted as a retort to the messiness traditionally associated with the business of writing.

How could Mike Johnson, a hirsute graduate of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies, a long-time resident on the hippy paradise of Waiheke Island, and a writer who values grotesque images, oddball characters, and self-destructing plots over notions of clarity and efficiency, not seem incongruous in the antiseptic environs of AUT's centre, where he has taught since last year, and where Titus Books recently helped him launch his new novel Travesty?

For the fifty-odd punters who gave a hearty welcome to Travesty, the AUT environment seemed to accentuate Mike's mystery. According to at least some observers, when Johnson read from Travesty, a novel which turns a seedy Auckland boarding house into a sort of mini-purgatory, where the souls of various deceased sinners are deposited by a bumbling or biased God, shadows seemed to enter the oppressively pristine environment of AUT. With their fragile luminous bodies moving against huge blocks of pitch black, Darren Sheehan's illustrations for Travesty also seemed to darken the air of AUT's lab.

The Michael King Writers Centre, which was established in 2005 in an old wooden villa on the southern side of Devonport's Mount Victoria, conforms much more closely to traditional notions of how a writer's workshop should look. Visitors to the Centre must leave their wheels in the carpark outside Devonport Primary School, a spot which seems to serve as a sort of base camp for the kite-flyers, pot-smokers, and dog-trainers who habitually ascend Victoria, and labour up a winding length of tar guarded by semi-derelict puriri. The King Centre sits on a piece of flat land, thirty or so metres from the summit. The Centre's current occupant is Bill Direen, and it was Bill who suggested last Thursday's party to celebrate the fortieth issue of the avant-garde, Auckland-based literary journal brief.

When Skyler and I arrived at the Centre we found Ted Jenner, the editor of issue number forty, sitting in a deserted living room, between a shelf of Michael King's books and a brand-new painting of the poet Bob Orr. Ted was gazing back across the harbour he had just crossed; the colour-coded lights of the port of Auckland were flickering and flashing at him through the blue twilight. "It's like an enormous abstract painting" Ted decided. "Mondrian.
Victory Boogie-Woogie." The painting of Orr, who has spent most of the last few decades guiding boats into the port, is one of the dozens of portraits of Kiwi scribblers distributed through the King Centre's rooms. I found Bill Direen in the kitchen, muttering to a bowl of mulled wine and a tray of deformed gingerbread men, and asked him if he felt intimidated by the presence of so many of the mighty dead, not to mention the mighty undead. Did the eyes of Allen Curnow and Ian Wedde follow him, as he made his way down that hall to the study every morning? "Just think of me as the caretaker - and the cook" Bill smiled, as he showed me the little burnt men he had named after the half dozen or so editors brief has had since it was founded by Alan Loney back in 1995. "Don't worry, I've got your name on one of them", he said, gesturing towards the creature intended to memorialise my tenure at the helm of the journal in 2005-2006. Later in the evening, after a series of readings by contributors to the fortieth brief, an ominously sober Richard Taylor took ostentatious delight in devouring several former editors. I read a few excerpts from the manifesto of the Committee for the Reconstruction of Space and Time on Pig Island, guzzled a few of the beers which Creative New Zealand had kindly provided, and then headed home, so that I could watch the latest episode of Survivors, the remake of the classic BBC post-apocalypse TV series from the '70s. (How can any work of literature compete with the apocalypse?)

Before I left the King Centre, though, I chatted with a schoolteacher and lover of literature who emigrated from Poland to New Zealand sometime in the '90s, and who came to the launch even though she had not seen a copy of brief beforehand. "This event reminds me of the meetings we held back in the eighties" she said, "to talk about literature, when it was very dangerous to do so. Just a few people, talking, drinking, reading poetry. We had to do it secretly, and you don't have to do that, but with everyone watching television, television, television, and with everyone so, well disinterested in culture, and in history - well, you are like an underground movement here!" I didn't tell her about my appointment with Survivors.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Your Working Conditions Under Attack

[blogpost by Skyler - I work at the University of Auckland and below are my concerns for our workplace if the proposed changes to employment legislation go through. I have just sent a version of the below to all union members at the UoA encourgaing them to get behind the Fairness at Work campaign.]

Proposed changes to employment legislation will affect rights and conditions at UNIVERSITIES and elsewhere.
Help prevent these changes!

Since National got back into power they have been slowly but surely taking our workplaces back to the bad old days of the 1990s, when market forces rules over common sense and planning, and workers and their trade unions were treated as enemies. The poor performance of the Kiwi economy in the '90s and the financial meltdown of 2008 prove that the neo-liberal, 'market knows best' policies don't work - but the Nats and their Act partners are ploughing ahead with these policies anyway.

As a case study of how neo-liberalism affected workers read this background document for my union’s current campaign for a Fair Pay system for General staff at the University of Auckland.

Last month John Key announced the National Government's plan to drastically change employment law in New Zealand. If passed the changes will take away workers' rights, remove protections, cut pay, reduce holidays and diminish access to sick leave – you can read more about how the Nats are attacking workers' rights at the CTU’s Fairness at Work website

I believe these changes are just the beginning and National will do all it can to re-introduce its neo -liberal policies.

Specific concerns for the tertiary education sector

The government ha
s indicated that it would like to give funding to courses that directly benefit the economy. Firstly, how can we predict what skills and jobs we will need in the future?! Secondly, I fear that this move would devalue the Arts and Humanities cutting funding to programmes like philosophy and history. These disciplines play a vital role in our society, helping us understand our culture and ourselves. They help develop critical thinking, literacy and analytical skills – all of which are useful for individuals, society and employers. I see the role of a university as a critic and conscious of society. It’s a place where ideas are developed and skills learned. It’s not a corporation!

No right to appeal against unfair dismissal and unfair treatment at work
The government is introducing legislation into parliament that will give employers the right to sack any worker instantly during the first ninety days of their employment. Rights of appeal and processes for fair dismissal form part of our collective agreement. The 90 day 'fire at will' bill undermines negotiated processes, making all staff vulnerable. Di
smissals lower morale and make us afraid to speak out.

Four weeks annual leave threatened
Many NZ workers have only just won
this entitlement. Now there are plans to let employers buy back the fourth week. This could undermine our claim for more leave here at the University of Auckland. Staff who are overworked and underpaid will feel the pressure to trade their annual leave for money.

Union access

Staff and members of your union help and support you, and represent you when negotiating for better pay and conditions. The government has tabled legislation that would restrict union access to worksites. This will seriously undermine our ability to bargain collectively for improvements in our workplace, and threaten the union movement general
ly - increasing the power imbalance between workers and employers.

Fair pay for women

Women are under-represented in top University jobs, but the Pay Equity Unit that audits the pay gap and makes recommendations has been axed. Fair pay for women is off the agenda.

Rest and meal breaks
A new Bill would make the length and timing of rest and meal breaks negotiable. Research shows that regular breaks are vital for health and safety at work. The National Party supported standard meal breaks for all workers before the election, but now they've broken thei
r promise, and want to give employers more control over when and how you can take your breaks.

Tertiary education funding linked to student performance
There is a danger that institutions will seek to lift their funding by excluding students they think are less likely to succeed, and that pressure will be put on teachers to lower their standards so that students can pass their courses with poor performances.

Funding for night cl
asses axed
The government axed most of the funding for night classes. This deprives people of affordable opportunities outside work hours to lift their skills.

Sick leave
Doctors agree that requiring a sick leave certificate for just one day’s illness is unworkable. WARNING: this could be the government’s “loss leader”! This proposal is so unworkable that it
is probable the government has thrown it into a package of very real and serious reductions in work rights so that it can withdraw it and look moderate later.

Unions are committed to stopping these changes and building a New Zealand where we all enjoy fair rights at work, decent wages and access to strong public services. Please join the rally on Saturday the 21st of August and show your support for workers’ rights.

Auckland Fairness at Work Rally
1pm Saturday 21 August 2010
QE2 Square (bottom of Queen St, opposite Britomart)

Monday, August 09, 2010

Fighting for land - and for the Enlightenment?

This site has not been the only place in the blogosphere where the New Zealand Wars of the nineteenth century have prompted vigorous debate in recent days. Over at Bowalley Road, Chris Trotter has reproduced a newspaper column in which he complains about the perceived bias of contemporary historians of the wars. Chris is particularly upset by the Waitangi Tribunal's Te Urewera report, the second half of which has just been published.

The authors of Te Urewera were charged with exploring the background to the claims that Tuhoe have brought before the Waitangi Tribunal, and they have naturally given a good deal of time to the repeated invasions of Tuhoe territory by Crown forces between 1865 and 1872. Chris is critical of the Tribunal's historians because he doesn't think they share his view that the armed struggle between Tuhoe and Crown forces was a 'civil war' whose outcome helped determine New Zealand's future. Chris thinks that the 'civil war' in the Ureweras involved a clash of ideologies, as well as a clash of arms:

Tuhoe picked the wrong side in the war to decide what sort of country New Zealand would become: a modern, technologically sophisticated, socially progressive and politically democratic state.

So modern and democratic, in fact, that in order to bind up the wounds of the losers, its liberal elite is willing to traduce the historical record and besmirch the reputations of the courageous men and women – Maori and Pakeha – whose blood sacrifice
[in the war against Tuhoe] made New Zealand possible.

How credible is Chris Trotter's view? Were colonial militia, Maori kupapa, and British officers fighting a war for the advancement of the Enlightenment and the establishment of liberal democracy in those misty Ureweras forests in the 1860s? Should Tuhoe have thrown down their arms and sworn allegiance to the Queen, and to the spirit of Voltaire?

To argue that Tuhoe should have made peace with the Crown, rather than fight it, is to argue that they should have accepted the confiscation of a huge chunk of their land in the aftermath of the killing of Carl Volkner in 1865. Volkner, a Church Missionary Society clergyman suspected of spying for his friend Governor George Grey, was slain outside his Opotiki church by a group of the local Whakatohea people led by a newly-arrived firebrand from Taranaki, Kereopa Te Rau. Tuhoe had nothing to do with Volkner's death, but the Crown, which was under pressure from land speculators and armed settlers, used the event as an excuse to confiscate a huge section of the iwi's best land. Tuhoe lost all of their holdings along the Bay of Plenty coast, and also suffered an invasion by Crown forces which claimed to be hunting Volkner's killers. In his article, Chris Trotter notes that Tuhoe hosted Te Kooti at the end of the 1860s, as the prophet and his guerrilla army fled Crown forces. Tuhoe's decision to host Te Kooti led to a series of new invasions by Crown forces. Ill-disciplined armies of kupapa Maori and colonial volunteers led by professional soldiers burnt kainga, shot civilians, and pulled up crops to create famine. Chris believes that these actions were prompted, and perhaps to some extent justified, by Tuhoe's irrational hostility to the Crown. The iwi ought to have recognised that the government in Wellington represented 'progressive' values, and submitted to it.

It is not surprising that Chris' article fails to mention the confiscation of much of Tuhoe's best land in the mid-1860s. Once this act of gross opportunism is taken into account, Tuhoe's hostility to the Crown, and their decision to align themselves with Te Kooti, are easily understood. It is hard to imagine an example from history of a people who have been happy to accept the expropriation of a vast tract of their best territory on manifestly unjust grounds. Do we find it strange that the Norwegians chose to fight a brave but hopeless war with Germany in 1940, after Hitler demanded control of most of their coastline? Would anybody expect Poles to have assented to the partitioning of their country by the Soviet Union and Germany in 1939? Does anyone fault Finland for refusing to hand half its territory over to Stalin, in the same year?

Perhaps, though, Tuhoe should have made an extraordinary concession, effectively destroying their traditional economic base and losing their access to the sea and to many of their sacred sites, because submission to the colonial government would guarantee modernisation and prosperity, in the 'technologically sophisticated' and 'socially progressive' New Zealand Chris celebrates?

We can test this proposition by looking at the history of Tuhoe Country in the twentieth century, after the government in Wellington finally gained firm control of the region. The evidence is that, far from showering Tuhoe with the fruits of modernity and the Enlightenment, successive governments worked hard to block Tuhoe attempts at economic development and education. Again and again, Tuhoe were stopped from developing their land. The sort of state help with roading which was extended enthusiastically to rural Pakeha communities was persistently witheld from Tuhoe, even after the tribe donated land for a road and offered to provide free labour to help with its construction. The settler state tried to destroy Maungapohatu, Tuhoe's spiritual capital, by raiding the place in 1916 and by systematically underfunding education and other services there for decades afterwards.

What is true for Tuhoe is true for most other iwi in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The economic successes of the Maori nations of the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka were not replicated under colonial rule. Wellington stifled rather than encouraged economic development.

Chris Trotter claims that iwi which allied themselves with the Crown during the wars of the nineteenth century did well out of the deal, because they gained ready entry into 'socially progressive New Zealand', but the sad twentieth century history of Auckland's tangata whenua offers evidence against this proposition. Ngati Whatua supplied the land on which the city of Auckland was founded, and were reliably loyal to the Crown throughout the Land Wars, and yet by the middle of the twentieth century they were being forcibly removed from the one small piece of land they still owned in the city, and watching the village they had maintained there being burnt to the ground. Ngati Whatua only won back some of their land after they abandoned their loyalty to the New Zealand state and staged a series of militant protests, including the massive and long-running occupation at Bastion Point.

In the comments thread beneath his post, Chris Trotter argues that Maori had the opportunity to 'assimilate' in the nineteenth century, by leaving behind their old culture and their old lands and becoming citizens of the new 'technologically sophisticated, socially progressive' Pakeha-dominated New Zealand. Chris believes that assimilation would have represented a step forward for Maori, in the context of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. It is unlikely that many nineteenth and early twentieth century Maori would have wanted to commit 'cultural suicide' by becoming brown-skinned Pakeha. Chris may think that the assimilation of Maori would have been historically progressive, but Maori fought to defend the Waikato Kingdom and Tuhoe Country, and protested with such determination at Parihaka, precisely because they wanted to remain unassimilated.

Even if more Maori had wanted to assimilate in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it is very unlikely that they would have been able to, because the same capitalist economy which Chris hails retrospectively as an engine of historical progress depended upon keeping them out of the modern world.

After the wars and confiscations of the middle decades of the nineteenth century, Maori found that they had been pushed off their best land into marginal areas like the King Country, the 'limestone country' around Port Waikato, and the upper Whanganui. They were able to make a subsistence living on the rough, inaccessible land that remained to them, but they were unable to revive the export-driven market gardening economies that had flourished in the Waikato Kingdom and in Parihaka.

Because many Maori still lived off the land, Pakeha farmers and other employers were able to pay Maori wages that fell below subsistence levels, and thus drive up their own profits and undermine the wages of Pakeha workers. The state could afford to pay miniscule benefits to unemployed Maori for the same reason. For Kiwi capitalism, there was little incentive to fully proletarianise Maori until the boom years that followed World War Two created a major labour shortage.

In the comments thread at Bowalley Road, a reader named Victor accuses Chris Trotter of taking a rose-tinted view of nineteenth century Pakeha state and of the capitalist class that state served:

Aren't you propounding another equally sweeping and a-historical myth? Was anyone actually fighting to make New Zealand "a modern, technologically sophisticated, socially progressive and politically democratic state"?...Did their notion of a modern state include Maori in possession of large tracts of land, acting as fully participating and equal members of the body politic (and not just on paper)?

I remain wary of replacing a romantic, nostalgic myth of the "Harp that once through Tara’s halls" variety with an equally romantic "history as the onward, upward march of enlightenment" variant, with every minor rivulet, no matter how murky or swamp-ridden, seen as feeding the great ocean of Human Progress.

Chris may wrap his interpretation of nineteenth century New Zealand history in the rhetoric of hardheaded historical realism, but the essence of his interpretation is, as Victor points out, remarkably romantic. And if one is going to be romantic about a past conflict, isn't it better to romanticise the underdog in that conflict?

Friday, August 06, 2010

Instead of a post about Timothy O'Donnell

[My thoughts about New Zealand's role in the occupation of Afghanistan are expressed more prosaically in this text.]

Elegy for a survivor of the war on Afghanistan

All surgeons are related
to their patients
by blood.
The best surgeons work quickly
in the dark.
At eight o'clock the lights in the psych ward
flick off, cellphones and girlfriends
are taken away,
and the nurses turn to guards.
You lie still in the blackout,
waiting for a bombing raid.

You often ask
about the past.
The past is a piece of rough skin soldered
to the back of your head.
Hair is beginning to grow over it.
You slept through the surgery
and screamed only once,
just before you woke up.
Your comrades in the ward
screamed in sympathy.
Now, every night, the dream plays backwards
at exactly the right speed,
so that you can admire the hips
and the cheekbones of the women
as they fly slowly
out of their crater
back up to the market square,
and slip their clean dark hands back into their purses,
or back onto the bomb-shaped
loaves of bread,
onto quinces and mangoes
as smooth as freshly-skinned heads.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Hone's racism was made in Europe

Hone Harawira's recent confession that he would feel 'uncomfortable' if one of his seven children chose to date, let alone marry and start a family with, a Pakeha has been condemned by other politicians and by many in the media and the blogosphere. According to rather gleeful commenters at right-wing websites like Kiwiblog, Harawira's words expose him as a 'racist pig', reflect the Maori Party's 'fascism', and reveal a sickness common across Maori society. Many of the commenters at Kiwiblog have moved easily, and perhaps unconsciously, from disingenuous condemnations of Harawira's prejudices to bald statements of their own bigotry:

Well, if Hone wants to increase the chances that his daughter gets beaten, does drugs, gets involved in gangs, teenage pregnancy and shaken-baby, then Hone is doing the right thing...

Right of way is Way of Right...a lot of NZ families changed their European names to Maori names at around the same time...70s and it was more financially beneficial to do so...and still is...based on greed.

It seems generally that Europeans have embraced the idea that ethnocentrism is a bad thing. I think other ethnic groups tend to see it as natural.

I am also unimpressed by Harawira's statement, but I'd like to think I can differentiate my reaction to his words from those of the obsessives who haunt the comments boxes of sites like Kiwiblog. I think that Harawira's attitude to inter-ethnic relationships is wrong precisely because it relies upon a couple of assumptions common to the Maori-bashers the rogue MP spends so much of his time trying to oppose.

Over the years I have engaged in many conversations - some of them friendly, some of them not so friendly - with Pakeha who disagree with my support for biculturalism and binationalism in Aotearoa. I've noticed that, whether they hail from the right or the left, or have no discernable politics, people who argue against my positions tend to resort, at some point or other in their argument, to references to the amount of 'pure blood' Maori have in their veins.

'Half of these Maori activists you see on television are part Pakeha', one friend told me a few months ago, with a look of absolute sincerity on his face. 'How can they call themselves Maori when they're not full-blooded?' Visitors to my blog and anonymous e mailers have made similar points over the years, informing me that the 'pure Maoris' of the nineteenth century no longer exist, that the people who call themselves Maori are 'really just Kiwis', and that attempts to recover stolen land, spread the Maori language, and establish institutions like wananga are both irrational and 'divisive'.

Over at Kiwiblog John Ansell, the adman responsible for the notorious 'Iwi-Kiwi' billboards that helped define Don Brash's 2005 election campaign, has used Harawira's prejudices as an excuse to dust off the old 'racial purity' argument:

When so much money is doled out to ‘Maori’ one way and another, I think people are entitled to ask this very uncomfortable question…In view of the dilution of bloodlines over the past 170 years, and the fact that many people who call themselves Maori are at least half Pakeha, is Maori actually a race? Or is it really a religion – like Catholicism?

The assumption that Maori identity is defined exclusively by blood and the argument that the only 'real' Maori are people with exclusively Maori ancestry are both hangovers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when European intellectuals had an unhealthy obsession with notions of racial purity.

In the nineteenth century ethnographers, travel writers, and artists influenced by notions of the 'noble savage' celebrated the 'purity' of the peoples that they encountered in parts of the world which had previously been isolated from Europe. For these rather patronising outsiders, the value of 'primitive' peoples like the Polynesians lay in their lack of experience of the ways of the West. Because their genetic inferiority and static cultures were incompatible with European influences, the noble savages would be 'ruined' by exposure to European technology and to randy European sailors and colonists.

The notion of the noble savage eventually exerted a strong influence on the men who administered the territories conquered by Europeans. In the last decade of the nineteenth century Dick Seddon decided that Tuhoe should be given a certain measure of political autonomy, and be isolated from the ways of the modern world, so that their 'special character' might be maintained for the benefit of 'cultural tourists' from the West. A few years later, the viceroy of German Samoa, an ethnographer named Wilhelm Solf, decreed that both colonists and most forms of modern technology must be kept out of his domain, so that the 'splendid children' he governed could 'exist undisturbed'.

In the first decades of the twentieth century the European fascination with racial purity saw the rise of the creed of eugenics, which made the cult of the noble savage seem positively benign. Eugenics distinguished between 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' races, and called either for the assimilation or for the outright elimination of the 'unhealthier' races. Eugenicists influenced not only Hitler's European genocides, but the policies of administrators in the colonial world. In Australia, for instance, it led to attempts to 'breed the blackness' out of Aboriginal peoples, by sending their children, especially their 'half-caste' children, to live with white families who would marry them off to whites, or to other 'half-castes'. In New Zealand, eugenics was partly to blame for the less dramatic but equally racist policy of 'assimilation', which saw urbanised Maori being housed in isolation from one another and discouraged from maintaining their connections with their whanau 'back home'. It was hoped that, cut off from their roots and their traditional support networks, urbanised Maori would adopt Pakeha ways, marry good Pakeha boys and girls, and produce offspring that would 'vanish' into 'mainstream New Zealand'.

When I meet Pakeha who still define Maori by the 'purity' or otherwise of their blood, I try to point out to them the unsavoury origins and history of the assumptions they hold. I also like to ask my interlocutors whether they are prepared to define European peoples with reference to blood. Studies by geneticists show that, after millennia of intermarriage and migration, there is no such thing as a pure-blooded Frenchman, or a pure-blooded Scot, or a pure-blooded Englishman, or a pure-blooded Pole. Does this mean that anybody who defines himself or herself as Scottish, or French or Polish is deluded? Is the teaching of the French language in French schools or the Polish language in Polish schools absurd? Should we laugh at Prince Philip's claim to be English, when his bloodline lacks any trace of Englishness? Why, I like to ask my interlocutors, is it only non-Western peoples who must be defined in terms of the 'purity' of their blood?

Maori themselves have never shared the European obsession with blood. It is of course true that genealogy is vital to Maori self-definition, but Maori culture has never regarded 'purity' of genealogy as important. Long before contact with Europeans, it was normal for individual Maori to define themselves by referring to ancestors from different iwi. After intermarriage with Europeans and non-Polynesian peoples began in earnest in the nineteenth century, Maori quickly began to incorporate new bloodlines into the self-definitions they recited on marae. Having a Scottish or Spanish or 'Negro' father or mother was not a source of shame, let alone social exclusion. The outsiders who settled in Maori communities in the nineteenth century often produced children of great mana. Jacky Marmon, the famous 'Pakeha Maori' who settled amongst Ngapuhi in the Hokianga, produced children with a series of high-ranking women introduced to him by their male relatives. Today scores of Hokianga Maori are proud to cite Marmon as one of their ancestors. On the East Coast of the North Island, an entire hapu of Ngati Porou, the Paniora, celebrate their connection with the Spanish sailor and trader Jose Manuel, who took five of their ancestors as his wives in the nineteenth century. Some of the greatest Maori intellectuals, politicians, and sportspeople have celebrated the non-Maori blood that has flowed through their veins. Sir Peter Buck was proud of the Irish ancestry his father provided him, but never felt less Maori for it. The Pakeha parts of Buck Shelford's whakapapa have not stopped him being a Maori leader on and off the rugby field.

When he expresses unhappiness at the possibility that his kids might end up intermarrying and breeding with Pakeha, Hone Harawira offends the many Kiwis of all ethnicities who do not share his prejudices. More importantly, though, he unwittingly reinforces a very old, very ugly, and still surprisingly widespread Pakeha misconception about Maori identity. By implicitly endorsing the view that the children of unions between Maori and non-Maori represent some sort of diminution of Maori identity, Harawira gives a boost to the sort of racism he has spent his career trying to defeat.

Monday, August 02, 2010

More cover stories

Warning: this post ends in an enormous anti-climax, as the 'mystery' its author labours to construct is efficiently dissolved by a commenter with a working knowledge of German. Take it as a lesson about the pitfalls which await bloggers who rely on google translator for their knowledge of foreign tongues...

I've blogged a couple of times about the mysterious cover of Travesty, the graphic novel which scribbler Mike Johnson and illustrator Darren Sheehan will be launching next Thursday night at the Auckland University of Technology's Creative Writing Centre (you can consult this poster, which deepens the mystery of Travesty's cover, for more details about the launch). The drawing Darren Sheehan made for the cover of Travesty has prompted a number of comments on this blog, as well as several rather agitated communications to yours truly, as viewers advance different interpretations of its details and meaning. According to one recent communicant, who chose to keep his or her identity secret, I am a 'goddam postmodern halfwit wanker' who 'sounds so try hard', because I see a bear on the cover of Travesty. Don't I realise that all bears 'have a cranial mid-saggital furrow', and that the creature Darren Sheehan drew has the 'opposite', a 'cranial mid-saggital eminence'? I'm sorry for my ignorance, anon, and I bow before your mastery of biology, but the fact is that I still see a bear, cranial mid-saggital eminence or no cranial mid-saggital eminence.

Observation is always theory-dependent, and the more one thinks about visual ambiguity, and about hidden imagery and secret messages, the more one finds these things. Looking at the cover that Manchester University Press has designed for my forthcoming book on EP Thompson, I suddenly realise how little I know about the image it carries. When the publisher asked me about a cover image earlier this year, I got Dorothy Thompson, Edward Palmer's widow and a significant historian and political thinker in her own right, to dig up a few old photos and post them off from Worcester to Manchester, where they were scanned and discussed. All of the photos were interesting, and some of them were both beautiful and historically significant, but all too many fell foul of the rules which govern the design of academic book covers. A photo which showed an impassioned Edward speaking in front of a World War Two memorial at an anti-nuclear demonstration, for instance, would have had to have been cropped very severely to allow the book's title and subtitle the prominence and clarity which were expected by Manchester.

Only two of the images Dorothy sent to Manchester ended up as cover contenders:

The image which ended up on the cover was snapped in the early eighties, when Thompson had suspended his scholarly work to devote himself full-time to leading European Nuclear Disarmament, the organisation he co-founded to try to 'break up the blocs of Europe' by supporting Eastern dissidents and Western anti-nuclear campaigners. Thompson's incessant campaigning brought him and his message new levels of prominence, but it exhausted him, and probably contributed to his early death in 1993. Dorothy doesn't remember who took the photo that ended up on my cover, but she doubts it was her. She thinks the image shows Edward speaking at an END-related meeting in either Cologne or Berlin.

A fine political orator and a finely oratorical teacher and lecturer, EP Thompson was seldom stuck for a word at the microphone or the lectern. There is a certain pathos, then, in the sight of him standing before his audience in apparent puzzlement, running his hand through that great Einsteinian mane of hair. Was he really struggling for the next word, or was he simply catching his breath, or perhaps play-acting for dramatic effect?

Even if Thompson wasn't literally stuck for words in the early eighties, he was arguably struggling for intellectual and political direction. The title of my book refers to the chronic crisis that Thompson's thought experienced in the postwar era, and particularly in the seventies and eighties, as the ideas he had adopted in the 'decade of heroes' that lasted from the mid-thirties to the mid-forties - the decade when the International Brigades fought fascism in Spain, and when the young Thompson fought the same ideology at Monte Cassino, convinced that the end of Hitler and Mussolini would bring the transformation of the world - were confronted by unheroic reality. Thompson's decision to immerse himself in anti-nuclear activism in the first half of the eighties can arguably be considered a response to his alienation from many of his old comrades on the Marxist left.

It was the French structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser who contributed, more than anyone else, to Thompson's disillusionment with Marxism. Thompson considered Althusser's obscurely-written, erratically brilliant, proudly 'anti-humanist' texts to be nothing more than 'Stalinism in theory', and despaired at the many followers the Parisian academic attracted in the universities and polytechs of Britain. In 'The Poverty of Theory', the two hundred page long polemic he aimed at Althusser and Althusserians in 1978, Thompson compared his nemesis to a dogmatic medieval theologian, a secret policeman, and a dalek. Thompson need not have worried about the influence of his enemy over the left: by the time 'The Poverty of Theory' was published Althusser was already suffering from severe mental illness, and in 1980 he strangled his wife, was declared insane, and lost his rights to teach and to publish, as well as much of his intellectual reputation.

I have long been intrigued by the way that the very vehemence of Thompson's attack on Althusser has ensured that his name has become linked with that of his bete noir. Like Euthyphro and Socrates, Camus and Sartre, and CP Snow and FR Leavis, Althusser and Thompson belong together in the minds of historians of intellectual controversy. I thought that the photo of Thompson standing in front of a blackboard resonated interestingly with the photo that adorns the cover of Philosophy of the Encounter, the 2006 volume of English-language translations of the wild and fragmentary works of philosophy Althusser scribbled in asylums and sheltered apartments in the lonely decade between the death of his wife and his own demise. L'avenir duree longtemps - the future lasts a long time - is a phrase which supplied Althusser with a title for the strange, chronically unreliable autobiography he wrote from an asylum in the mid-'80s. As well as boasting of stealing all his ideas from his students, robbing banks, and planning the hijacking of a nuclear submarine, Althusser the autobiographer claimed to have enjoyed a secret friendship with Charles de Gaulle, and the phrase 'L'avenir duree longtemps' is sometimes attributed to de Gaulle.

I can find no details about the date and circumstances of the photo that decorates Althusser's last book. Was it taken before or after the terrible death of Helene Althusser? If it was taken after the 16th of November, 1980, why is the disgraced philosopher standing in front of a blackboard, wielding a piece of chalk, and displaying a confidently pedagogical gaze?

I struggle to make out the form and meaning of the drawing Althusser has made with his chalk. Is the enigmatic figure behind him supposed to be an illustration of the arcane laws of the 'philosophy of aleatory materialism' whose 'ancient, hitherto secret' existence he claimed to have discovered in his post-1980 writings? Is it some sort of grotesque self-portrait, whose finer details are obscured by Althusser's sickly body?

Looking at the cover of my forthcoming book this morning, I realised that the photo which adorns it is just as puzzling as the image on the front of Philosophy of the Encounter. What, I wondered, do the words on the blackboard behind EP Thompson mean, and who wrote them? They appear to be German, but Thompson never knew that language: like Malcolm Lowry and Kendrick Smithyman, he combined an extraordinary gift for the English language with an inability to learn other tongues. What if the words behind Thompson communicate some message which runs completely counter to that of my book? What if they tell a dirty joke?

Three words can be seen on the board behind Thompson. The second of them is partially obscured by Thompson's locks, but the other two are 'BITTE' and 'RAU'. 'Bitte' means 'please', and, according to the German-English function on google's translator programme, 'rau' can mean either 'rough' or 'roughly'. The middle word is something of a mystery: could it be a variation on 'dran', which means 'turn', or on 'ssen', which apparently means 'have to'? Is there a relationship between these words, or word-fragments, and the mathematical equations chalked in the bottom right hand corner of the blackboard?

The photograph has been cropped by Manchester's designer, which means that all three words are fragmented on the book cover. As Richard Taylor and other violently innovative poets know very well, though, the dismemberment of a word adds to rather than removes its connotative power, as the confused minds of readers search for ways to complete it. What strange solutions might they might find to the riddle of Thompson's blackboard? Perhaps some reader of this blog with a grasp of German can help me circumvent such speculations, by coming up with a good interpretation of the riddle?