Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The black and white world

When Skyler and I set out for the southern greenbelt of Auckland last weekend we decided to travel down the Great South Road, with its semi-permanent roadworks and spiteful traffic lights, rather than on the smooth fast Southern Motorway, which is insulated from the suburbs it bisects by brown noise walls and by great earthen banks covered in huddling shrubs. Perhaps because of its languid pace and its lack of necessity, our journey down the Great South Road began to take on a curiously luxurious feel, like some cruise down a slow-moving river.

My old PhD supervisor Ian Carter liked to argue that the first movies were not shown on a silver screen, but rather on the windows of trains. The passengers on trains and in early automobiles experienced the reality they passed through as a sort of film, with each piece of landscape being a new 'scene' in an exciting if plotless drama. Supposed pioneers of film like Eisenstein merely found ways of simulating what train and car passengers had already been seeing for decades.

I grew up in the suburbs near the southern edge of Auckland, and I associate the journey up the Great South Road with my own journey into adolescence and into adulthood. As a kid I would catch a Cityline bus up the Great South Road, past places with strange names like Otahuhu and Wiri, to the movie theatres, spacies parlours, and comic shops of central Auckland. Later, as a teenager, I'd make the same journey to the bars of the central city on Friday and Saturday nights, returning with a turbulent stomach on the eleven-thirty bus. Eventually I enrolled in university, and moved permanently up the Great South Road.

Because of this personal history I sometimes see a journey away from the city down the Great South Road as a journey into the past. As one suburb gives way to the next I recognise places of significance, and these historic sites become more and more frequent the further south I get. It is as though some film of the past is playing backwards.

Last Saturday I annoyed Skyler by pointing out a series of significant sites on the Takanini Strait, the long and rather ugly stretch of road that connects Manurewa with Papakura. As we passed the turnoff to Conifer Grove, New Zealand's first gated community, I told Skyler about the thrills of stuffing circulars into letter boxes on silent thoroughfares with names like Syntax Place, and when I spotted a semi-derelict warehouse I was reminded of endless bloody games of Laserstrike.

At the southern end of Takanini Strait, on the right hand side of the road, behind a row of tall oak trees and a field of tallish grass, is another site of significance: Selwyn Oaks Retirement Village.

I have never visited Selwyn Oaks, but as a small child I always seemed to know someone - a classmate's great-grandfather, or a friend of the family, or a distant relative - who was an inmate there. Selwyn Oaks was a place where the past was kept. The men and women there - mostly I heard about the men - had lived through what I imagined, on the basis of my preliterate examination of encyclopedias and history books, was the 'black and white' phase of history.

In the black and white era the average man lived a simple, predictable life. He came of age, walked into the bush with an enormous axe, swung the axe, built his own house out of logs he had felled, cleared a farm around the house, and later left his home and his farm to fight black and white Germans in the black and white mud of black and white Europe. His black and white wife stayed at home and darned black and white socks besides a black and white fire.

I'd hear stories, from schoolmates and from relatives, about Mr So-and-so at Selwyn Oaks, who had killed two hundred and eighteen Jerries during the battle of Jutland, or Mrs So-and-so, who had darned the socks of every member of some early incarnation of the All Blacks. My five year-old self was intrigued by these stories, but also slightly afraid of their mighty and ancient protagonists. I wondered what the inhabitants of Selwyn Oaks did all day, now that they had been coaxed out of their handbuilt homes into a retirement village, and been made to exchange their ancient gumboots for fluffy slippers. What would happen if they escaped from Selwyn Oaks, and were restored to their former influence? I didn't particularly fancy a return to the glorious past, with its dour faces staring out of black and white photographs.

Now that I'm in my mid-thirties, and thus staring down the barrel of retirement home life, I have a much more sympathetic view of the inmates of Selwyn Oaks. I suppose that, for many of them, the transition from a fairly raw rural life to an urban retirement village must have been difficult, and that a certain amount of self-mythologising might have helped them cope with their changed situations.

Here's a poem which I might try to weasel into the film which Paul Janman and I are making about the Great South Road:

Eeling at the Retirement Home

The gong sounds
again. To remake the summer
of forty-four, the gorse burning
in slow motion
under Maketu pa,

to make a morning moon
as full and sharp
as the peephole he cut
into the wall of the shithouse
at Drury School,

to save a childhood as long
as the eel that basked
on the mud at the bottom
of the pool at the bottom
of the waterfall at the bottom
of Maketu pa:

he steps over thistle-sentries
into a shallow ditch,
tugs at the handle
of the carving knife he kept
there. That blade is still as silver
as water on the fall.

He cuts off the head. He cuts the tip
of the tail. Lunch is served
while he sleeps. He stows the knife,
hurries back, tears out the backbone
by hand. The longer the eel has been dead
the more slippery it becomes.


Anonymous Raymond A Francis said...

Nice writing, love it.
In another line have you read "Guns % Utu" by Matthew Wright
I found it interesting although some of the South Island history is not as I know it, checking on that
I am interested on your opinion

8:36 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks Francis. That book sounds intriguing: I'll hunt it down at the library tomorrow.

I was talking with a mate the other day about eels, and about Te Puoho, the kinsman of Te Rauparaha who launched a raid down the South Island with only a handful of followers, near the very end of the Musket Wars, when virtually all iwi were well armed and there was little to be gained from bloodshed.

Te Puoho was warned to call off his invasion by wiser members of his iwi, which had a toehold in the far north of Te Wai Pounamu and was vastly outnumbered by the Kai Tahu iwi further south, but he insisted on going ahead with the operation. Referring to the shape of the South Island, he boasted that he would 'skin the whole eel', and that he would capture the whole Kai Tahu iwi and 'drive them like beasts'.

After an exhausting expedition down the West Coast and over the Alps Te Puoho and his handful of followers were caught huddled together in an derelict pig pen in Southland by a Kai Tahu force which had heard of their 'invasion'.

A number of my friends - Brett Cross and Jack Ross stand up - are Werner Herzog nuts, and they like to talk about the manic energy of Klaus Kinski's character in Aguirre: the Wrath of God, who believes he can capture the whole of South America, including of course El Dorado, with a tiny group of mutineers. I reckon that Te Puoho, with his ultra-voluntarist belief that sheer willpower can overcome vast practical difficulties and lead to great conquests, is New Zealand's version of Kinski/Aguirre. Someone should make a movie about the bloke! I'd be interested to hear how he's viewed in the south these days...

9:12 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the world is going to suffer so many cataclysms (economical, environmental, nuclear) that the existing states will collapse and their constitutions will become irrelevant. I believe that by the end of this century the world will be made of wealthy, high-tech enclaves surrounded by total anarchy resembling modern Somalia.

9:31 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Tears in the eyes stuff - again - Scott.

In a world where the burden of thought becomes lighter and lighter, your literary loads have a weight that reminds us of just how much the human mind can carry.

10:20 am  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Supposed pioneers of film like Eisenstein merely found ways of simulating what train and car passengers had already been seeing for decades.

Lovely post, but there is no way that this sentence could be less true!

11:10 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:37 am  
Anonymous rushy said...

Swearing is not clever in poems!

2:06 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for your kind words Chris. If only you, and not the legendarily hard-hearted poet and critic Hamish Dewe, were guest editing the forthcoming issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief! Like a number of other longstanding contributors to brief, I've had my submissions blown out of the water by Hamish.
I think this text might seem rather too much like an exercise in 'old-fashioned bourgeois pastoralism' to comrade Dewe...

Giovanni, is there anything in Ian's basic point about train travel influencing the development of film, or do you think he's letting his profound love of trains interfere with his scholarly judgment?

Ian did perhaps lose his faith in Marxism at some point in the '80s or '90s - and who can blame a man who had to live through Thatcherism and the implosion of much of the British left? - but he remains, as far as I can tell, a historical materialist, and I wondered, listening to his lectures back in 2002, whether he has developed a sort of 'railway materialism' to replace Marxist materialism.

He did seem to attribute an extraordinary number of reature sof the modern world to trains: he traced the 'modern' concept of shock, for instance, to the sudden deceleration which trains are prone to in emergencies...

11:18 pm  
Blogger Giovanni Tiso said...

Giovanni, is there anything in Ian's basic point about train travel influencing the development of film, or do you think he's letting his profound love of trains interfere with his scholarly judgment?

If he can point to any way on this earth that Eisenstein's cinema is a simulation of the landscapes you see through the windows of a train or car, I'm going to walk to Odessa.

Photography and theatre, now, on the other hand.

11:34 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

It's a good poem Scott.

I looked up the reference to Te Puoho. The significance of the the eel? This doubles as something from your own childhood (I had been reading some of Alan Curnow's great poems of his own childhood memories in 'Early Days Yet' and they reminded me a bit of this) as well as reference to Te Puoho?
And the eel is symbolical also? Of South Island Maori or Maori in general...quite some levels.

I think poems you have written like this could be in Brief. Did Hamish take anything else by you?

In some ways also some of your writing also reminds me of some of the great poems of Elizabeth Bishop. But she is an incredibly good poet.

I recall seeing a long film (on TV I think in the late 70s) about Ivan the Terrible by Eisenstein. It was good. Also I knew about the Battle Ship Potemkin which my friend Dick Fowler used to play.

I also saw The Wrath of God in the same time - late 70s I think - on TV. When it came on I was amazed as I am sure it was based on book I had read and decided to use (rather arbitrarily I was only a teenager I think) as the structure of a long poem and it was such an expedition and everyone died on it...I wrote some great poetry in it (I think, maybe it was rubbish!) but I eventually destroyed all my poems written in those days...

I would love to see some more of Herzog* (I had never heard of him (it wasn't till you showed me that film of making the film (At Drury) I connected the man or found out who he was) I just watched the film (it seemed strange they were all speaking in German!) at the time and thought it rather strange but certainly powerful)

How do I get to see that again or any more of his films?

*That's also the title of a great book by Saul Bellow.

1:24 am  
Blogger Richard said...

The Great South road my brother, my 2 sisters and I used to travel in right into the Tepid baths to learn to swim. Also we went to a skating rink that used to be in Khyber pass.

David L. Brown is into skating. My eldest sister was very keen and until relatively early was a skating coach.

And it is good drive down the GT South - how far does it go before you have to go on the motorway?

1:29 am  
Anonymous Raymond A Francis said...

Yes, Te Puoho and his tua covered an amazing amount of country in their efort to capture slaves but the outstanding person was his brother-in-law Ngawakawa who escaped the last battle and then walked home
I am not in a position to comment on how this raid is viewed except to point out that Te Rauparaha's haka is allowd to be performed down here now

4:51 pm  
Blogger Sandra said...

It's an indication of my current life spent reading picture books every night obviously, but when you wrote about the black and white lives of the Selwyn Oaks retirement village, it brought to mind Grandma McGarvey and the Puddle Street Gang by Jenny Hessell. Grandma McGarvey volunteers at the local rest home and brings to life the elderly not with tales of diligent heroism but of childhood pie stealing adventures.

Is Selwyn Oaks named for Bishop Selwyn? I suspect retirement villages of being places of stultifying conformity much like schools.

2:06 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Te Puoho...a man of iron will

8:49 am  

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