The kids are alright
According to a slew of grumpy middle-aged commentators, including a chap who posts regularly on a blog very like this one, the 1990s saw the birth of the so-called 'digital generation', a breed for whom the cellphone and the blackberry are natural extensions of the human body, and for whom books, and especially the sort of books that house novels and short stories and poems, are either incomprehensible or pitifully old-fashioned things. According to our gloomy commentators, the algorhythmic patterns of computer programs and the hastily-composed haiku of the text messager are the only forms of literature relevant to the new 'digital natives'.
A couple of weeks ago, though, the avant-garde poet, Smithyman scholar, and Vipassana meditationist John Geraets handed me a stack of documents which seem to contradict some of the dogma surrounding the current crop of teenagers. John teaches English at St Peters College, a venerable Catholic boys' school in central Auckland, and he'd asked me to choose the winners of his school's annual Sam Hunt Literary Awards.
I soon found myself poring over poems about wolves and mutilated toy soldiers, stories about bungled Al Qaeda operations and successful hunting trips to the Ureweras, strange, ornate dialogues between characters with names like 'Gaia' and 'Progress', and complaints about the perfidy of today's mainstream media. Despite their inevitable flaws - who can write perfectly at forty or fifty, let alone fourteen or fifteen? - many of the entries John gave me showed an old-fashioned delight in language, storytelling, and argument. Thesauruses had been raided and emptied of their gaudiest adjectives, arguments went from polite to polemical to vituperative in the space of a couple of sentences, and plots were derailed and rerouted and rerouted again by twists and double twists and other brutally arbitrary interventions by their authors.
In the report I wrote for John I picked out two young authors for particular praise. Lewis Wheatley, who is, I think, what used to be called a fourth former, had a produced a novella called 'Matanuku' which offered an interestingly twenty-first century take on that staple of Pakeha juvenilia, the lost tribe story. Back at Drury Primary School in the mid-'80s I wrote a story about an expedition - an expedition led, of course, by the heroic Captain Scott Hamilton - that searched the nooks and crannies of Fjordland for the group of 'old time Maoris' which was popularly supposed, even in the late twentieth century, to dwell there. Lewis' story, which was carefully organised into chapters and moved easily backwards and forwards through time, suggested that a quarter century of the Maori Renaissance and a better informed generation of teachers have ameliorated some of the worst cliches of the Pakeha imagination. Lewis' wanderer in the Ureweras is not a member of some mysterious relict people, but rather a hermit who has been exiled from his native village because of an unusual and disfiguring medical condition. The hunters who stumbled upon the man do not shoot or net or even photograph him, but instead make him their friend.
The other entrant I picked out for particular praise was seventh former Anthony Kamphorst, who seems full of the sort of anguished ambiguity towards the Catholic faith that we recognise from the novels of James Joyce and Graham Greene. In one of Kamphorst's stories, a decrepit but pious priest and a jaded, Nietszche-quoting journalist carry on the sort of dialogue about God, evil, faith, faithlessness and destiny that might be inserted into The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter.
The Sam Hunt Awards ceremony was held last night in what seemed to be a large antechamber to St Peters' assembly hall. Entrants sat with beaming parents and bored-looking siblings around the tables set up by a superefficient Students' Academic Committee. Sipping the orange juice I'd been served, I wandered over to a wall and studied photographs of long-dead priest-teachers with the inevitable Irish surnames. On another wall several almost impossibly crisp rugby jerseys sat as securely as religious relics behind a fat pane of clean glass. They had once belonged to the captains of champion first-fifteen teams.
When John Geraets, who was suddenly dressed in an expensive suit, introduced me to the entrants, their families, and the teaching staff of St Peters as 'a big man of New Zealand literature', I decided he must be referring to my beer gut. Worried that the families of unsuccessful entrants might turn on me, I mumbled something about the 'inherently subjective nature' of all literary judgments, and urged everybody to remember that 'this isn't the Olympics'. I had chosen a winner for each form, as well as an overall winner, who was to be given the unlikely title of Sam Hunt Scholar. Every winner read a little of his work; mothers wiped their eyes.
After Anthony Kamphorst had been annointed Sam Hunt Scholar, a member of the Students' Academic Committee began a speech against "booze and bad behaviour", and in praise of literature. "At other schools a small minority is giving all youth a bad name with drinking and other immoral activities" the earnest young man claimed. "But tonight we see the real spirit of youth." I remembered how, at my secondary school, booze and pot were almost semi-official pastimes, and were indulged in by both students and staff. Our yearly balls were undisguised booze-ups and, if the media is to be trusted, the same dionysian spirit pervades the functions of most of today's schools. Perhaps, though, things really are very different at St Peters. Could this little school, wedged between the quarried slopes of Mount Eden and the torrential traffic on Khyber Pass Road, be a sort of island of civilisation, the twenty-first century equivalent of those monasteries, isolated on mountain tops and North Sea islets, that kept civilised arts like reading and calligraphy alive during the Dark Ages?
But if St Peters is going to breed the next generation of Kiwi writers, how are these writers going to cope with the fear and loathing of alcohol and other substances which is apparently being drilled into them? What, after all, would the history of literature look like without the influence of booze? How much would Hemingway have written without whiskey? How would Rimbaud have written his visionary poems without wine and hashish? Didn't great Catholic writers like Joyce and Greene and our own Maurice Duggan drink even more than their heathen counterparts?
I was pondering the relationship between booze and literature when the principal of St Peters took the stage. He looked worryingly like John Cleese, and I imagined him goosestepping down his school's corrdiors, with his index figure stretched under his nose. "We have gathered here tonight for the Sam Hunt Awards" the principal pointed out. "Sam Hunt was expelled, I am sorry to tell you, from this institution. There is a large hollow tree preserved on the boundary between the upper and lower schools - Sam Hunt used to sit in that tree and read his poems to a group of fellow dissidents that appeared around him. Sam Hunt wanted to create a state within a state. And a state within a state couldn't be tolerated."
The principal suddenly turned his head toward me, and I feared that I might be facing expulsion. "Doctor Hamilton's talk about the importance and distinctive qualities of literature made me think", he said slowly, "about a proposal over in Victoria to do away with English and replace it with something called Communication Studies. I suspect it's being pushed by some left-wing group - it's the sort of thing those people do. Thankyou, anyway, for reminding me to fight these left-wing people, Doctor Hamilton."
After the formal part of the evening had finally ended, the principal wandered over to the table where I was sitting, and picked up a copy of my latest book.
"I thought Id better bring a copy along" I told him, "just to prove that I really was a writer, and not some bum who'd wandered in to get out of the cold."
"That was a good idea", John Cleese murmured. "You're dressed like a bum, after all. Now what's this book about?"
"It's a study of EP Thompson, the Marxist historian and political activist" I told him. "It talks about the Spanish Civil War, and life in the Communist Party during the early years of the Cold War, and the campaign to get nuclear weapons out of Britain, and - "
The principal of St Peters College put my book down, turned around, and walked purposefully away.