Sunday, February 27, 2011

Finding Elborado

During tragedies words can gain a sad sort of autonomy, as increasingly desperate hopes run up against realities which are difficult to accept.

Scores of hours have passed since the last live body was prised from the ruins of Christchurch, but in press conference after press conference politicians and aid workers continue to insist that they are running a 'rescue' and not a 'recovery' operation. The first word expresses the hope of finding further buried survivors of last Tuesday's quake; the second would represent the acceptance that there are no survivors left to find. There is a sort of comfort that can be gained from the continued use of 'rescue', even if the word has lost any real purchase on reality.

The situation in Christchrch is so sad that I thought it was worth relaying one piece of good news to emerge from the city in the past twenty-four hours. A week or so ago I blogged about a wild gig that a reformed lineup of Bill Direen's legendary band The Bilders played up in Auckland. The keyboardist at that gig was Mick Elborado, who graced The Bilders for a short time in the mid-'80s before helping to form another cult Flying Nun outfit called The Terminals. Mick popped up in the comments box under my post to say hello, and to query my use of the adjective 'Tolkienesque' to describe his beard.

By the time he was making his intervention on this blog Mick had returned from Auckland to his hometown of Christchurch, and after last Tuesday's quake Bill Direen and other friends were soon firing off messages asking after his well-being. For three long days, Mick's whereabouts were a mystery, and the enquiries continued. This morning, though, a relieved Bill sent me an e mail announcing that comrade Elborado had turned up safe and sound in Christchurch.

It seems appropriate to post the video clip for one of The Terminals' best-known songs:

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

HAARPing on about a tragedy

New Zealanders associate our country and its history with earthquakes, in a way that, say, Australians do not, but we tend to expect to expect quakes to strike only quite restricted parts of our islands - Hawkes Bay, and the obscure mountains west of Nelson, and our ill-sited capital city. We also expect a decent interval between the 'big ones' which flatten buildings and shift hills. It is no wonder we are shocked, then, by the two destructive quakes which have hit Christchurch, a city not usually considered to sit on a major faultline, within the space of a few months.

Some Kiwis are trying to deal with the shock of the Christchurch quakes, and the fear that the quakes may be repeated again and again, by turning to conspiracy theories. Here's an excerpt from a long message a reader named Te Hatapihopatapui Olson left at this blog in the aftermath of the first major Christchurch quake:

Modern warfare tactics have developed way beyond the foot soldier, tanks and guns etc... This is why the USA has pulled back in regards further development of nuclear arms. They have a silent and more deadlier weapon - HAARP [High Frequency Active Auroral Research Programme]. I won't go into it here but would like anyone reading this to google it and then perhaps we can dialogue. My city and region has been shattered by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake that shouldn't have happened here as there were no faultlines under our region...

Some of us who are aware of HAARP and who have backgrounds in broadcasting are concerned that there may be US military pressure being brought to bare in retaliation for our anti-nuclear stance and the refusal to allow nuclear ships into our ports. The build up of radio wave technology structures around Canterbury since the ex Prime Minister David Lange days seems too deliberate to be co-incidental as the need for such a proliferation of towers and receivers is more than would be necessary simply for ordinary radio/satellite transmissions...

Olson's explanation of last September's quake might seem eccentric, but it popped up in a number of other corners of the internet, as Matthew Dentith, who monitors conspiratorial thinking, noted in a typically thorough blog post. A facebook group set up to promote the theory that humans were behind last September's quake has well over a hundred members.

Now Christchurch has been hit by a second earthquake less than six months after September's shocking event, and the conspiracy theorists seem to be further encouraged. Uncensored, the Auckland-based website and magazine which blames Jews for 9/11 and regards the Holocaust and global warming as elaborate money-making scams, has hosted absurd claims about seven United States congressman making a secret visit to Christchurch shortly before Tuesday's earthquake. The Yanks were apparently fine-tuning an earthquake-making device they had installed near Birdling's Flat, a fishing village on the bleak coast south of Banks Pensinsula. Uncensored has previously claimed that the 2010 earthquake which levelled much of Haiti occurred after American operatives aimed a HAARP weapon at Iran but got their coordinates wrong.

It's rather hard to understand how seven of America's highest-profile citizens were able to disappear from their nation's capital and reappear in an isolated place at the bottom of the world with so little fuss. It's also hard to see why the US would want to devastate a city which contains the only US-run military base in this country. Logic and evidence, though, have never greatly bothered the conspiracy theorists who run Uncensored and similar publications. They are far more interested in connecting every one of the world's problems to a sinister cabal of Jews. The danger is that, in the confusion caused by Tuesday's shocking events, the conspiracy theorists will win more dupes like Te Hata Olson, and thus, potentially, more recruits to their irrational and anti-semitic political cause.

Humans didn't destroy Christchurch but, as Chris Trotter noted yesterday and as I argued last September, people acting in solidarity with one another and supported by an activist state can rebuild the city.

Footnote: I've just received this message from Dougal McNeil...

All of you in New Zealand will know of the disaster in Canterbury already, and many of you overseas will have learnt that Christchurch and the port city of Lyttleton have been very badly damaged following another, terrible, earthquake earlier this week. Over 70 people are confirmed dead and the number is expected to rise. Many are very badly injured, still more unaccounted for. The Port of Lyttelton is closed.

Our brothers and sisters in the Maritime Union of New Zealand have set up a relief fund to support maritime workers and their families. Please pass this link, providing details for how to make a donation, through your contacts and friends in the trade union movement.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Money or the Bag

Posted by Skyler:

My academic colleagues at the University of Auckland are prepared to turn down a 4% pay rise to protect key terms and conditions in their contracts which enable them to do their jobs well and provide quality education to students and undertake valuable research.

I have been part of the union bargaining team at The University of Auckland for the past seven months trying to come to a settlement with our employer. We have bargained in good faith and searched for compromises. We've dropped or revised our claims, considered and accepting some of the employer's claims. Through the last seven months, though, the agents of vice-chancellor Stuart McCutcheon have said no to all our claims, in a spectacular display of hubris.

At the 11th hour of negotiations, just before Christmas, McCutcheon's team put forward a final offer to academic staff that would see academics losing some of their most cherished rights in exchange for a 4% salary increase. The claw-backs would have removed clauses in contracts affecting matters like research leave, promotions and disciplinary procedures. If these key terms and conditions are removed from academics' contracts then staff will only be able to get research and study leave at the pleasure of McCutcheon's senior management. Research, which has traditionally been a core part of the work of academics, could become a privilege for a few rather than a key part of all academics work. Removing these conditions will make it much harder for the University to attract and retain quality staff and postgraduate students. Having these conditions inside the collective agreement is one of the draw-cards for people contemplating working at The University of Auckland.

Academic union members met across the university last week and discussed why the vice-chancellor does not want to listen to their fears and concerns about removing these conditions from their contracts and the impact it would have on education and research at the university. Staff agreed that rejecting the demands of McCutcheon and his bargaining team may cost them them a cut in their real income, and that some industrial action may be necessary, but they consider that such sacrifices will be worthwhile if they help protect their working conditions and quality teaching and research at their university.

A real consequence of all this could be the widening of the wealth and knowledge gap between New Zealand and many other parts of the world. Future generations of Kiwi students will be affected as the quality of their education declines and their qualifications are not worth as much. My hope is that the alumni who have benefited from the high quality of teaching and research at the University of Auckland will come out in support of their former teachers. Let's call on the vice-chancellor to be the best employer in the country, and to listen to his staff, who only have the best wishes for the future of the university at heart. The academic staff are not asking for anything extra (in fact they are willing to turn down a lot): they just want to maintain their current working conditions.

The vice-chancellor wants Auckland to be the number one university but he is taking the university in the opposite direction if he continues down the course he has set us on. By opposing the vice-chancellor's agenda staff are defending the quality of their work and the reputation of the university.

Read the Tertiary Education Union's media release here

Visit the Money or the Bag campaign website to find out more

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Like a rock in the sea

At two o’clock in the morning, a few metres under Karangahape Road, at the end of the series of low-ceilinged rooms collectively known as the Wine Cellar, Bill Direen is playing the opening notes of ‘Dublin’, a song he wrote nearly a quarter of a century ago. Bill shares the small stage with the latest reformation of the backing band he has sometimes called The Bilders, and has at other times dubbed Die Bilder, Bilderine, and The Urbs.

Like Trotskyist study groups or Calvinist churches, The Bilders and most of the other great Flying Nun bands were, in their 1980s heyday, inherently unstable, inevitably fissiparous outfits. The same punkish love of improvised performance and do-it-yourself recording which brought band members together led to contests of ideas and splits, as this or that member left to establish his or her own version of the faith. Tonight’s keyboardist, whose face is almost obscured by a Tolkienesque beard, left The Bilders to found a cult Flying Nun outfit named The Terminals. The other men on stage have formed various bands of their own, and earned their own places in musical folklore.

There is something disconcerting, though, about the reunion of these legendary figures. Jorge Luis Borges has a short story in which the Gods of antiquity – Janus, and beak-nosed Thoth, and other beings marginalised for millennia by the jealous abstract deity of the Abrahamic faiths – materialise on a dais in a Buenos Aires lecture theatre. The mortals who have crowded the theatre, eager to adore the long-absent Gods, are soon dismayed to find that the objects of their reverence have suffered the indignity of physical decay. The Gods’ brows are beetled; their teeth are yellow. I think of Borges’ story when I look at the potbellies and the receding hairlines and the greying beard on stage. Would these Gods have done better to hide from us, and to thereby preserve the images established by old album sleeves and memories of gigs at the Gluepot and the Captain Cook?

Of all the men on stage, only Bill seems to show no trace of decay. His stomach is flat, his scalp is well-covered in thick brown hair, and his face, from this distance and in this light, seems almost unnaturally smooth. He could have materialised straight from the mid-‘80s.

Bill was a teenage folkie before he was a teenage punk, and the lilting melody of ‘Dublin’ might have been borrowed from one of the hundreds of songs his Irish ancestors brought with them when they emigrated to the South Island more than a century ago. The lyrics of the song, too, seem old: full of poetic inversions and images Yeats might have used during his Celtic Twilight period, they speak of the gap between innocence and experience, and of the mysteries which the aged cannot share with the young:

What darkness is this, suddenly fallen?

There’s a vanishing door, but I’ll not tell you more
There are things that are meant to unfold

This is a song that I love
That I learned long ago

There are things I could tell
But it won’t do you well

You must wait like a rock in the sea

Bill sings in a low, steady voice. The Bilders accompany him gently, and the crowd is quiet, so that when I close my eyes I can imagine a jukebox turned down low in an empty bar at the end of a summer night.

After the last verse of the song, though, Bill drops half to his knees and begins to play a loud, jagged solo. His smooth face is suddenly a mess of wrinkles; his eyes are shut tight. The men and women around me whoop and jump up and down and hold their bottles of Macs and Emersons aloft like torches.

Even the old fans, as obviously subject to decay as the men on stage, pogo like young punks. I am standing beside Graham Humphries, who has spilled most of his beer with his impromptu salute to Bill’s solo. Humphries punched me in the face a couple of songs ago, when he decided to celebrate the solo in the middle of ‘Bedrock Bay’ by closing his eyes and performing clumsy star jumps. Holding a cool bottle to my bulging eye socket, I was about to remonstrate with Humphries, who was oblivious to his deed, when I remembered that Skyler and I had played his music at our civil union. How, I was forced to ask myself, could I reasonably object to getting a left hook under the eye from the man who wrote a love song as gorgeous as ‘Sour Queen’?

Not all of the punks are old. A teenager with a shock of platinum hair is whooping particularly loudly, and making a cryptic gesture with his thumb and forefinger whenever Bill changes chords.

Eventually Bill finishes his solo, and steps away from the front of the stage. He has opened his eyes so that he can wipe them. The rest of the band lose the melody, then fall into silence one by one, then remonstrate with one another, as the stage lights dim. “We’re taking a break” Bill says, from somewhere near the back of the stage. “We may be a while.”

A couple of weeks ago Skyler and I drove Bill down the Southern Motorway, past the turnoffs to suburbs which remain to him exotic names, into the recently-abolished district of Franklin. Bill had for some time wanted to visit Tuakau, the little town on the lower Waikato where his father attended a boarding school run by Marist brothers in the 1930s. Andy Direen’s working class Catholic parents had sent him north from Timaru after he had capped his primary school education by winning a scholarship to the Tuakau Juniorate.

A photo on the rambling, luxuriantly detailed website run by and for old boys of the school at Tuakau offers a view of Andy Direen in 1938, wearing the black shorts, black socks, and black long-sleeved shirt with two white buttons which comprised the uniform of the Juniorate. If it were not for the bare knees and smooth smiling faces they show in photos, the school’s students might be taken for members of Mosley’s Blackshirts, or of the Spanish Phalangist militia that leaders of New Zealand’s Catholic church were supporting so uncritically in the second half of the ‘30s. Other corners of the Juniorate old boys’ website record the adventures of Andy and his fellow pupils on the modest peaks of the Bombay Hills, and at the children’s health camp near the mouth of the Waikato River.

Andy Direen died near the end of 2010. The obituary which appeared in The Press on the first day of 2011 gave prominence to his wartime career in the Royal Air Force, a career which saw him dropping torpedo-bombs on the oversized German battleship Tirpitz in a Norwegian fjord, and later flying out from Ceylon to destroy Japanese oil refineries in the Sumatran city of Palembang. The Press eventually described Direen’s postwar career as an accountant in Palmerston North and Christchurch, but it barely mentioned his teenage years in Tuakau.

We turned off the motorway at Drury, and stopped for a cup of tea at my parents’ farm. I grew up on the farm, less than a quarter hour’s drive from the site of the Juniorate, but I had no idea the school existed until Bill told me about the part it had played in his father’s life. The old boys’ website stated that the Juniorate had closed in 1974, but gave no clue as to what had happened to its red brick buildings and its playing fields and its stone grotto adorned with a plaster Mary. Even the colour photos on the website might have been taken forty years ago.

My parents were as ignorant as I had been about the Tuakau Juniorate. Bill wasn’t surprised by our innocence of the place.
“It’s a micronation” he announced, squinting into his teacup.
“A secession, a nation within a nation. There are lots of them in New Zealand. We seem to need them.”

The mention of secession reminded my father of the South Island.
“New Zealand ends at the Bombay Hills. I never vote for South Islanders in Fonterra elections, you know. They’re a funny lot. Xenophobic. The South Island has had a tough year, with the earthquake and this mine thing. I think we should cut them loose. Auckland should unite with New South Wales.”
Bill didn’t detect the joke. “You advocate the division of New Zealand?” he asked politely.
“Yes! The South is a burden. We’ll sell you lot to the Chinese. China needs more land.”
“I’ll have to think about that carefully. I’ll have to bear it in mind.”
“I’m just joking, you know.”
“I’ll bear it in mind”.
“I’m joking.”
The awkward silence became a comfortable silence, as we sat and sipped our tea and looked out a window at the Drury Hills, which had turned worryingly brown since my last visit. The wires of a distant fenceline shimmered in the heat; for a moment I imagined that an earthquake was moving them. “We need some rain” my father finally said. “You South Islanders bring droughts up with you”.

As we drove southwest toward Tuakau, past the glasshouses and hen houses and country houses of Ramarama, I asked Bill how he was enjoying the Franklin countryside. Bill has spent almost all of his life in cities, and both his songs and his stories teem with urban imagery. He has passed much of the past decade in Paris, but has almost never entered the French countryside. He told me once that open spaces made him feel lonely, and aggravated his tinnitus. But Bill liked Auckland’s southern greenbelt. “This is good country” he said as passed through Harrisville, the area of onion and potato farms that bears the name of one of the generals who invaded the Waikato Kingdom in 1863. “It’s densely populated, isn’t it, this land? And people look like they are using it. It doesn’t have that bleakness you sometimes get in New Zealand…”

Harrisville was intended to be a country town, complete with a wide main street and a paved square, but the soldier-settlers who had helped Harris seize the Waikato soon abandoned the place, realising that there were no jobs to be had, and knowing that the small plots of land they had been gifted by the government in Auckland were absurdly uneconomic, even for subsistence purposes. It took the growth of Auckland, the invention of refrigerated shipping, and the arrival of skilled farmers from Ulster and – later – Gujarat to make this part of Franklin economically viable. Today the small plots and intensive cropping give Harrisville a curiously Old World air, despite the groves of puriri and totara which still stand on the edges of some of its fields. We crossed the railway line at the edge of Tuakau, and turned left, away from the township, up Dominion Road. The drive which led to the complex of red brick buildings was protected by puriri which must have been saplings when Andy Direen was young. A door was open in one of the buildings; inside, a middle-aged woman asked if we’d come “to buy the place”. Most of the old Juniorate was up for sale, she explained.
“The Felix Donnelly Trust, they had it. They had it for a school for troubled kids, but the Education Review Office has closed them down. Poor conditions, they said. The kids were suffering. This building is being rented by Youthlink – we do counseling here. The rest of the place is for sale. Take a look. You may decide to buy it after all.” The buildings were set on a low hill which fell away into fields of grass tall enough for children to hide in. Desks and tables and chairs had abandoned their classrooms and taken up positions on the external staircases and concrete verges of the larger structures.

Skyler went looking for Mary and her grotto. “We had a plaster Mary and a grotto at my school” Bill remembered, as he stood on the newly-mown lawn that surrounded the empty buildings. “Mary is everywhere.”

When the Tainui people pushed out of their base around Kawhia into this part of Te Ika a Maui hundreds of years ago, they left small stone figures in the soil of the rohe they crossed, and thereby rendered the new land hospitable. I wondered whether the Catholic tendency to leave images of Mary in the most improbable places might have its origin in the same sort of desire to make a homeland out of a strange new land.

At the end of the ‘70s Bruce Hayward carried out a comprehensive survey of historical and prehistoric sites in the Waitakere Ranges; one of his more surprising discoveries was a rectangular grotto cut into a clay bank along the edge of Anawhata Road. Long obscured by scrub, the space had once housed a statue of Mary which had been carried through the bush of the Waitakeres by the Irish workers who built the road to Anawhata. When the roadbuilders broke up their camp and returned to the city, they took Mary with them; in the same way, the Marist brothers appear to have evacuated Mary from the grounds of their old Juniorate. Skyler could find no signs of the Virgin, but I spotted a pile of stones which might have been the remains of a demolished grotto. Bill took photos of the walls of the Juniorate’s main building, zooming in and out, stepping this way and that, trying to locate his subject in the landscape. Against the blues and greys of the sky and the waving shades of green in the unstocked paddocks behind it, the long rectangle of red looked, from a distance, like the decisive element in an abstract painting by Hans Hoffman or Milan Mrkusich, the block of vivid yet undifferentiated colour which holds the composition together and compels the viewer’s gaze. Close up, though, each brick was defined by some small imperfection: a chip the size of a small marble, or a chalked grafitto, or a long elegant sliver of fossilised birdshit.

I asked Bill if the physical decline of the Juniorate saddened him. “It is a place I couldn’t enter anyway” he replied. “Even if it was open I couldn’t enter. Not in the way my father could. It’s a micronation.” It would be tempting to make the Tuakau Juniorate into a symbol of the much-publicised crisis of Catholicism, as the church struggles, in Western nations like New Zealand at least, to reconcile the asperity of its leader’s moral judgments with perpetual revelations of sexual misdeeds by his employees. But no former student of the Tuakau Juniorate has accused the Marist Brothers of abuse, and the Felix Donnelly Trust bears the name of a priest who, even in the relatively liberal 1970s, was ostracised by the church for his criticism of its theological and sexual conservatism. If Donnelly’s school had failings, it would be unfair to rush to associate these with mainstream Catholicism. The Tuakau Juniorate may be decaying, and orders like the Marist Brothers may be failing to attract new members, but only twenty minutes’ drive away, in the Bombay Hills the young Andy Direen liked to explore on weekends, a monastery and nunnery which share the name Tynburn recently expanded their operation, opening a visitors’ centre and a space where outsiders can come for weekend ‘spiritual retreats’.

“My father never said anything bad about this place” Bill remembered, as he put his camera away and turned for the car. “Nor did he have anything bad to say about the church. Some of his army friends said that they expected him to become a priest, once the war was over. They were surprised when he chose accountancy, but perhaps there are some similarities. Counting shillings, counting souls…” The road to Port Waikato runs twenty or so kilometers along the southern bank of the river, after crossing the dusty art deco bridge on the far side of Tuakau. Fringed by swamps and fed by tributary streams and farm run-offs, the lower Waikato is bloated and brown. The farmland close to the river is either swampy or hilly; after the conquest of the Waikato much of it escaped confiscation. Today Maori-owned farms in this area still sometimes struggle to get the capital investment they need for new milksheds and gorse clearance. Banks used to the tidy Pakeha model of the single proprietor dislike having to negotiate with scores of owners from multiple whanau or hapu.

My father once told me a story about travelling with his rugby team across the Tuakau bridge to play a game at one of the marae on the road to Port Waikato. “We were all set to go out on the field when someone realised that a blackberry bush was growing on the twenty-two” he remembered. “The Maoris sent some goats out onto the field, and we all sat down and had a few beers while we waited for the goats to get rid of the bush.” The south side of the river feels a long way from Harrisville and Drury. The Port Waikato Outdoor Education Centre sits a few hundred metres from the main road, at the bottom of an almost-vertical hillside, beside the Maraetai Stream, which has the distinction of being the very last tributary to flow into the Waikato before the river reaches the Tasman. The Centre is the successor to a children’s camp set up in the late ‘20s by Hilda Ross, the ferocious Hamiltonian socialite who eventually became a National MP and a member of Sid Holland’s Cabinet. Ross’ institution was one of a network of health camps organised by well-heeled New Zealanders in the ‘20s and ‘30s. In a 1996 essay on the health camp movement, Margaret Tennant argues that Ross and her colleagues were driven by the fear that the poor food and crowded living conditions of New Zealand’s burgeoning urban slums would create a generation of physical and moral degenerates. The health camps were an attempt to preserve the country’s ‘racial strength’.

The children sent to Ross’ camp usually came from the poorer parts of Hamilton and other Waikato towns, after being commended as worthy cases by their doctors. The Tuakau Juniorate students, who mostly came from modest backgrounds, seem to have visited on weekends, and sometimes during longer holiday breaks.

Camp guests were woken at six-thirty, made to wash in the stream behind their dormitory-huts, and then assembled around a large flagpole, where the Union Jack was hoisted and patriotic songs were sung. Later Ross and her staff would inspect the huts, while the children stood to attention beside their beds. Ross weighed the children regularly, and fed them large amounts of fatty foods, like porridge coated with a thick layer of sugar, in an effort to bulk them up quickly. Children were also subjected to ‘heliotherapy’, which was a fashionable ‘30s term for sunburn.

As we wandered past the thick trunk of the flagpole Hilda Ross erected at the centre of her fiefdom, I decided to avoid asking Bill, who is the most militant republican I have ever met, how an Irish Catholic boy like his father might have felt about having to salute the Union Jack every morning. Bill already had misgivings about the camp. “All a bit militaristic, isn’t it?” he asked, pointing at a row of huts with names like Captain’s Cabin and CO’s Den. One of the oldest buildings on the site boasted a painted mural showing a grove of trees and the motto AND the LEAVES of the TREE were for the HEALING of the NATION. Puriri, karaka and other natives grow by the dozen around the camp, but the mural showed oaks and gums and other exotic trees. As we finished the drive to Port Waikato Skyler asked Bill about his parents’ Catholicism. Was it partly the rituals, the vivid garments, and the serenely beautiful music which attracted them? Skyler’s own parents were for some time enthusiasts for the ideas of Rudolf Steiner, the prophet of a creed quite as elaborate and strange as Catholicism. They taught in Steiner schools, and for a few years took Skyler to a church full of psychedelic murals and inscrutable ceremonies. “My mother was attracted to the beauty of the religion” Bill remembered. “It is a type of art, really. Or it was, for her."

The baches at Port Waikato are still single-storey wood or fibrolite affairs, not the mansions of marble and tiles found in many other twenty-first century New Zealand beach towns. Relative isolation, black sand and exceptionally rough surf mean that the Port has never been fashionable, even during property booms. We walked the hundred or so metres from the carpark to the cliff which marks one end of the beach. Five kilometers to our north, at the end of a system of high ironsand dunes, the Waikato slips into the open ocean, unseen by anyone except the occasional trekker.

I spotted some shells clinging to the eroding side of the cliff. Bill put his hand to the midden, feeling the warmth of the afternoon sun on the compacted black sand.
“People ate their meals here, hundreds of years ago, left their rubbish? You’re sure? Hundreds of years…That’s a long time.”
He stood with his hand on the midden and his head bowed.

This is a song that I love
That I learned long ago

There are things I could tell
But it won’t do you well

You must wait like a rock in the sea

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A memo to Mubarak, from Kendrick Smithyman

Update: well, so much for the historical relevance of this post. The bugger went and resigned on me as soon as I went to bed!

Like most other sentient beings in this part of the world, I suspect, I have been sitting up watching the news from Egypt and pondering both the creativity of that country's protest movement and the monumental pomposity of Hosni Mubarak.

After suffering some excerpts from the latest self-pitying and yet sinister speech from the Mummy-in-chief, I'm inclined to ask: why are the worst military leaders so often drawn from air forces?

Besides Mubarak, who never stops reminding his truculent subjects of his role as an air commander in the calamitous Six Days War of 1967, one has to consider Luis Prince Suazo, who continued a venerable Honduran tradition by removing his democratically-elected President in a coup a couple of years back, and Jerry Rawlings, who used the tiny air force of Ghana as a springboard to political power in 1981 and then ruled the country for more than a decade, forcing through one of the most caustically neo-liberal IMF 'reform' programmes seen anywhere in the world.

When I think about relatively progressive military leaders or would-be leaders, like the young Hugo Chavez, who organised an unsuccessful armed uprising after watching the Venezuelan government slaughter two thousand demonstrators in a week during the 'Caracazo' of 1989, and Thomas Sankara, who gave Upper Volta a new name and a new direction in the '80s before being assassinated, I find that they tend to come from the army.

Even navies seem to provide somewhat better military leaders than the glory boys in the sky. Frank Bainimarama, who is no friend of democracy but has at least challenged the power of corrupt Fijian chiefs-turned-capitalists and protected his country's Indo-Fijian minority from persecution, hails from the navy.

I wonder if the large sums of money needed to train military pilots and the elaborate human and technical infrastructure needed to support them foster a certain elitism, and a consequent hostility to the populist politics that captured the likes of Chavez and Sankara. Perhaps, remembering the story of Icarus, we might also speculate that the experience of taking flight at rare speed into the circumambient matter breeds a certain God-like detachment, and a certain hubris. In his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women JG Ballard recalls how, as a young man training as an Royal Air Force pilot above the frozen lakes of northern Canada for days on end, he began to forget about trivial subjects like friends and family and world peace, and to dwell instead on the delights of staging a solo nuclear bombing raid on the Soviet Union - of 'flying low over Belarus with two pieces of the sun under my wings', as he put it.

Reports from Tahrir Square speak of splits in the army, as sergeants and other middle-ranking soldiers side with demonstrators and denounce Mubarak, but US-built jets have happily buzzed protesters, and analysts describe the air force as Mubarak's most reliable support bases.

Kendrick Smithyman served in the Royal New Zealand Air Force for most of the Second World War, but he spent his time in a storeroom rather than a cockpit. Perhaps because of his humble station in the Air Force, Smithyman developed a profound hatred of the pomposity of his commanders and their American allies. In 'The First Liberator', a poem published last November in Private Bestiary, my collection of his previously-unseen texts, Smithyman offers a possibly-apocryphal story of military pomposity and its comeuppance. I thought I'd post the poem and as a heavily coded riposte to Mubarak, and as an utterly ineffectual gesture of solidarity with the Egyptian revolution.

The First Liberator

Word came down from Bullshit Castle:
Americans are sending a Liberator.
Personnel will...
personnel did,
paraded, with band. Staff cars arrived.
It swung in heavily, touched down, taxied,
tuned, feathered motors, and stopped.
The door opened, Big Brass appeared.
You know how American big brass appears.

On that last leg swinging in
some crewman purged the tank holding shit.
Their big bird was plastered with shit.
No doubt about it: shit is shit

and the U.S. Air Force
General and his Aides were (My country,
'tis of thee sweet land of) framed
in it.

Of thee I sing.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A last e mail from Dorothy

I have a bad habit of waking in the middle of the night, shuffling from the bedroom to the spare room, turning on the computer I keep there, and checking my e mail.

One of the people responsible for the formation of this habit was Dorothy Thompson, the British historian, political activist and widow of Edward Palmer Thompson. Over the past five years Dorothy and I swapped hundreds of e mails. She tended to write her messages in the middle of the British day; I'd receive them eagerly in the early hours of the antipodean morning. When I was researching my PhD on her husband, I fired Dorothy, who had already met me face to face during my research trip to Blighty and been perturbed by my poor taste in liquor, all sorts of irritatingly pedantic questions about matters like Edward's reading habits in 1967, the logistics of producing a left-wing magazine on a small budget in the late '50s, and the seating arrangement at a History Workshop debate in 1979.

After I began to adapt my PhD into a book, the questions only became more frequent, and more pedantic. With commendable patience Dorothy answered all my inquiries, and she also did her best to introduce a certain levity into our exchanges, telling me stories about cats, giving me some gossip gleaned from her vast circle of friends and family members, and baiting me with remarks about the 'cosy isolation' and 'ugly forests' of New Zealand. I reciprocated with reports on the minor absurdities of the Auckland literary scene, with photos of family cats, and with deliberately provocative suggestions that the Pacific, and not exhausted Europe or exhausting China, is the most interesting region of the world to inhabit in the twenty-first century.

On the Thursday of the week before last I rose in the night to check my e mail, and was unsurprised to find two epistles from Dorothy. But only a couple of days after she had fired off these typically witty, typically astringent messages, Dorothy died in her local Worcester hospital. She was eighty-seven, and she had for some time alluded in her e mails to her physical decline, even warning me in a jokey tone that she might not live to see the arrival of my book in April, but her death nevertheless came as a shock. I feel like she has stopped speaking in mid-sentence.

I still feel too sad to write the extended tribute Dorothy deserves (fortunately, Sheila Rowbotham has produced a fine obituary for The Guardian), but I thought I'd reproduce one of the e mails she sent me on Thursday, the 27th of January. Dorothy was a regular reader of this blog, and the e mail reproduced below was her response to a post in which I discussed the conflict that often seems to exist, on the left at least, between intellectual and political work.

My blog post and the discussion which followed it had sent Dorothy's agile mind back to the fateful year of 1956, when turmoil in Eastern Europe, the acknowledgement and then effacement of Stalin's crimes by Krushchev, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary had combined to cause a massive split in Britain's pro-Kremlin Communist Party. Some of the refugees from the Communist Party dropped out of politics, or turned to the right; others, including the Thompsons, established the journals and local activist groups which marked the beginning of the anti-Stalinist, anti-capitalist, intellectually adventurous movement that became known, in Britain at least, as the first New Left.

Many of the Communist Party's intellectuals left the organisation in 1956, but a few stayed loyal, contriving justifications for the crimes of Stalin and the repression of the Hungarian revolution by Soviet tanks. The message Dorothy sent on the 27th shows that she never lost her contempt for intellectuals who put loyalty to a party line ahead of loyalty to the truth:

Your last note in which you talked about the difference between a political activist and a Marxist thinker set me thinking. I find it difficult to be charitable about... positions of influence - power if you like - at moments in the actual history in which we were taking part that made a real difference. If the British Communist Party and the intellectuals who supported it had come out openly in 1956 - siding with the dissidents in the Eastern block and with the many good non-communist left people in the crashing colonial countries it might have been possible to see the emergenece of a non-communist social democratic left in Europe in the 'seventies and eighties and onwards. These people were not just chaps who had different policies. If they had been in power - as their counterparts were in parts of E. Europe, our people would have been bumped off. They did plenty of sneaky things - like reporting Peter Fryer [the journalist for the British Communist Party's paper who was sent to report on the Hungarian revolution and ended up siding with the revolutionaries] to the Franco authorities when he and his girl friend were in Spain with dodgy documents, and plenty of other bits and pieces. As it was they were mostly academic and futile but by refusing to condemn the Soviet neuclear weapons they made the work of the Peace movement much more difficult throughout Europe. So I am less indulgent about them.

Dorothy was never a grim person, and the second half of her e mail turned to lighter matters, and took on a playful tone:

The other thing that occurred to me when I was looking at the great row of biographies and autobiographies on my shelf - Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Peter Worsley, Ralph Russell, John Saville, Eric Hobsbawm, John Lucas, Ralph Miliband etc.etc. is that the version of their lives that these books present is very different from the ones in my memory. Some one whose name I can't recall for the moment, tho the book is next door on the same shelf, wrote a little volume on "The Iris Murdoch I knew" when Peter Conradi's book came out. It was very irreverent and very funny. I could do a book on foibles of famous lefties which might be quite a revelation. In fact, the experience of knowing people who are the subjects of books has made me even more suspicious of biography and autobiography as sources for the history of a period than I was before. I always told my graduates that such sources should rarely be used without support from other sources and I have always been extrememy suspicious of the so-called "oral history", not because reminiscence is not of value but because it is so very dodgy. Still I don't think that book will get written. Best D

Dorothy didn't get to write a last, scandalous book, but she made a good start on it in the many wonderful e mails she sent me as I was writing first my PhD and then my book about her late husband. I'd like to think that some of her insights and asperities have made their way into my text. I will miss those late night e mails.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Against all 'decent restraint': Jack Ross talks about EMO

One of the themes of the recent discussion here about intellectuals and blogging was the decline in the quality and quantity of offline publishing, and the necessity of using the internet to pick up the slack. A number of contributors to that discussion pointed out that, without the stout theoretical journals and weekly or fortnightly magazines of old, lefty intellectuals have been forced onto the internet to debate and develop their ideas and analyses.

But it is not only political discussion which has suffered from the decline of the offline media in the West. As many periodicals either go tabloid, jettisoning any intellectual pretensions, or go under altogether, the spaces available for the discussion of literature have also declined. It is not surprising that many of the most interesting book reviews and literary interviews now appear online.

I'm certainly pleased to be able to publish an interview with the venerable Jack Ross which has apparently proved too long for any of our local offline literary journals to host. The interview was conducted by Richard Taylor, a man with a longstanding and well-deserved reputation for digression, and moves through subjects as different and differently interesting as life on Mars, the future of the book, the last days of the Roman poet Ovid, the 'socio-sexual extremism' of Kathy Acker, Auckland's 1998 power blackout, and the political consequences of the suppression of emotion.

As they chat, Jack and Richard return again and again to EMO, the large and strange novel Jack published in September 2008. Jack has a vast private library, which he has catalogued in disconcerting detail on a website named A Gentle Madness , and EMO, with its multiple layers of text, multiple plots, and slips between distant times and places, often seems like an attempt to fit a whole library between the covers of one volume. Precisely because of its improvisational, wide-ranging nature, Richard's chat with Jack makes a good introduction to the book.

Richard: EMO – what does it mean and why is it the title?

Jack: Well, it’s a musical style – and a kind of lifestyle choice. “Emo” stands for “extremely emotional” (or so I’m told). It’s rather like the Goth style, only Goths tend to see Emos as very suburban and spurious. When I heard about it a few years ago, I thought it perfectly summed up what I was trying to do in this book – both the excessive emotionalism and the faint air of the spurious. After that, though, I started making up a whole series of puns as retrospective justifications: E/ Earth – M/ Mars – O / Otherworld; and E/ Eva – M/ Marlow – O/Ovid. That gave me my core cast. The mood preceded the material in this case.

Richard: To what extent is or are your three books, Nights with Giordano Bruno, The Imaginary Museum of Atlantis, and EMO in some way to be thought of as a trilogy – I mean not so much a trilogy in a narrative sense, but perhaps in sense that they share similar experimental locations, as well as certain common ‘themes’ or ideas. One would be surely the exploration of various states of consciousness, and or of physical states?

Jack: This one was written consciously to try and complete a pattern which I could see starting to work itself out in the other two books, even though the first of them (at any rate) was written as a completely stand-alone text. Since that first book used Insomnia as its central image for alienation, and the second used Amnesia for its own set of concerns, the idea was to move one step deeper in this final book and focus on Blindness. A very hopeful set of tropes!

Richard: I note that in fact EMO itself is, or could be seen to be, a trilogy (or has three sections) and your quote at the start of EMO is: “According to certain Buddhist schools of thinking, three rebirths are the minimum to reach enlightenment … one for the harvesting and liberation.” Is EMO, or the third chapter of EMO, rebirth that reaches enlightenment? If so, how does this happen? What is this enlightenment?

Jack: Yes, EMO is a trilogy: a set of three novellas, revolving around all the false starts and misunderstandings which cripple communication between people. Mostly, I suppose, it’s about relationships. I suppose I hoped that by working through the three narratives, the reader might be positioned to think about what “enlightenment” might be. That’s the best I can do, myself. There’s an attempt at a sort of poetic resolution at the end of the book, but I’m not in any way thinking that that could be enough. A step in the right direction, though, hopefully.

Richard: How much do you ‘owe’ to postmodernist theory? What writer or thinkers are “behind” what you are writing? (Of course Jack Ross is “behind” all the books)…

Jack: I guess when I first started reading Derrida and the other poststructuralists much of what they were saying seemed self-evidently correct to me. They pointed out that all of our metaphysics and analysis was based on extremely shaky ground – that each web of meanings was used as justification for the next web of meanings, but there was no solidity or certainty beneath it all. But then, that was obvious to me already. Isn’t it obvious to everyone? The only real question then becomes how to function in such an uncertain universe, and some of the ideas they had about that seemed quite sensible as well. Derrida used the language and methods of metaphysics to deconstruct traditional metaphysics. Why not? He was quite conscious of the paradox involved in doing so, but what alternative did he have? I guess my style of writing fiction (and “novels” in particular) is a kind of use of fictional tropes to question the nature of fiction itself. It can be an absorbing occupation. Do we really need an overarching theory to make sense of everything before we start thinking and analysing things? I’m not sure that we do, and Derrida gave me a kind of starting-point for continuing to assert that.
Richard: I read some essays by Walter Benjamin – one in particular on translation seemed to me to say, more or less, that translation, if it was really worthwhile or significant, in fact transformed a work into a “higher” work.

I know you were interested in Benjamin – I don’t know much about him – but how much has the idea of translation, or transformation, been a significant aspect of your work and in particular
EMO? For me it seems that you are pretty much “obsessed” with many variants of various works and tales (the Tales of the Arabian Nights of course and also, via Ovid, whose Metamorphoses are transformations of various kinds (echoing the strange world of nature itself in fact), as well as Greek mythology, sexuality etc And EMO is, it seems to me, a constantly shifting, changing, transforming work…And you yourself are quite conversant with many languages – and have translated much literature. (Such as Borges and much else…)

Jack: I guess I see Walter Benjamin more as a poet than as an historian of culture. His ideas are interesting, but it’s mainly the harmonious sense of a mind finding beauty in unexpected twists and turns of thought that’s really inspiring, I think. His essay on the role of the translator is a classic, but it’s totally over the top at the same time. He sees it as inherently involving a kind of transcendental act. My own ambitions as a translator are rather more humble. I do it because it’s a useful way of bringing in a kind of complex cultural apparatus without having to feign or manufacture it yourself. It’s yours and not yours at the same time. The idea of transformation or metamorphosis is (you’re right) at the heart of these books because it interests me intensely, but then it interests most people, don’t you think? Ovid, Apuleius, the Nights, these are all texts which use it as a central metaphor, but then transforming oneself, and thus (hopefully, by example or contagion) transforming society is surely such a basic poetic device that using it needs little justification. We need to transform ourselves in order to avoid the errors of the past (our own and others’) – by definition.

Richard: Am I right in that EMO is also quite different because now you are yourself quite vigorously using the Internet and Blogs to allow the reader to follow the various "strands" of the book?

- And further that this adds a multiplying or magnifying effect or potential to EMO so that by implication and de facto it is all texts done by Jack (who is amusingly found missing – that is on page 98 a blurb to another book (another text inside a text by the way!?) says: “Ross has disappeared…” and thus again there is a wry “Death of the Author” (etc) question…or am I wrong?); and all texts are thus interacting - I am trying to express the Barthesian and Derridean aspects of your work - the endless chase of signifiers and the "Death of the Author" are subtexts I guess at. Clearly the author is not dead! Never was wanted to be as such! But it is implied by the many stories - especially when I read in your notes that run transverse to the "main story" where you discuss, in relation to 1001 Nights, the fact that no one is sure who the author of that work is. Now this text, with all its many stories and comments on stories, "feeds" into the main text and thus, as I suspect that EMO is in fact another story inside what is effectively a Borgesian or Escherian endless loop of stories in Jack's, or the Non Author's, endless book, it seems to me the text is "authored” by all other texts. In particular by your own reading and learning in life and in literature, art etc. In fact this all reminds me of Jealousy or Voyeur by Robbet-Grillet (and the poem of that name by Manhire).

Jack: The internet and the idea of hypertext and shifting plains of reference is certainly a gift to the aspiring labyrinth-builder. Joyce and Escher seem to have got along okay without it, but I guess for me the world-wide-web is a kind of democratisation of the impulse: everyone their own Borges, with a tithe of the effort. As far as the death of the author goes, well, there is another Jack Ross – a hard-bitten desert-loving Reno detective in the works of a guy named Bernard Schopen (and actually, since EMO was published, yet another Jack Ross has surfaced: a Scottish crime-writer who wrote a book called Requiem) – so maybe I am dead after all, and just don’t know it … I deliberately fail to name the protagonist in all three books of the trilogy. Which makes sense to me because they’re all focussed on a central male figure undergoing some kind of extreme turmoil (they might all be versions of the same person, in fact). But actually all three books are by me, and I’m a male, resident in Auckland (where all three books are set), sharing many experiences with these central figures, etc. So of course they are all me. But then they’re not, either, because they’re fictionally-projected personages in mysterious mirror-worlds. These seem to me unavoidable accompaniments to the whole business of writing fiction. You could say that I was deconstructing fiction by undermining certain aspects of the projection – pointing out the paradox of pretending to be someone else when everyone knows it’s just you in a funny wig. But then Cervantes did all that in Don Quixote and it didn’t stop his characters seeming real –or believable, which isn’t quite the same thing.

I guess EMO takes this lack of verisimilitude pretty far. It’s hard for me to believe that many readers will be comfortable with such naked and perfunctory scaffolding I provide in various parts of the story. But then I’m not particularly interested in making people feel comfortable. You’ve got to go pretty far nowadays to wake them up at all – to break up the frozen sea within them, as Kafka said.

Richard: Regarding influence again – I know you once emphasized your debt to Kathy Acker.

What of her (or other writers) have influenced you and what in particular about her… I know she dealt with certain “shocking” things as sex and so on, and like Burroughs tended to cut and paste and so on. And the cut up, the breaks and divergences, etc, have all become a part of most “cutting edge” writing …

Jack: I like Kathy Acker’s use of cut-ups. I like her political and socio-sexual extremism. What’s not to like about her, in fact? I love how badly she writes at times. She’ll repeat the same paragraph twice on one page – she shoves in anything that comes into her head. It takes real guts to do that. So many people will just assume that you lack the talent to write “beautifully.” You could say that it’s because I’m so jaded, searching for fresh kicks all the time, that I go for deviants like Kathy and Burroughs (or J. G. Ballard, for that matter), but really it’s that I feel that “beautiful” writing is inappropriate to the kinds of horrors we face at present. I read that thing The Road by Cormac McCarthy – beautifully and stylishly written and all – and was completely unmoved. Way to make post-nuclear holocaust sound dignified and restrained and even manly in a weird sort of way! Give me some ravings from Kathy any day.

But I guess the most straightforward thing she helped me with is her complete refusal to acknowledge the conventions of genre. “Essay” – “story” – “novel” – “poem” – they’re pretty much all the same to her. You literally can’t tell which one she’s setting out to write most of the time, and that also enables her to get away with a lot. Her publishers and editors label them one thing or another, but there’s little intrinsic evidence to support their choices most of the time. Basically, she hates decorum – literary or any other kind. That’s not hard for most of us to sympathise with.

Richard: I have pencilled some notes on the f.e.p. etc of my copy of EMO. Here they are – these are possible themes and connections - perhaps not only questions per se

Language [significant, central to this book, Jack’s writing or world view/] – intersection of narratives generating new forms [I meant of e.g.
1001 Nights and “Eva Android”] – then all is translation, transformation (or even transgression?)

- labyrinths, dreams

- states of consciousness

- infinity

- transformations and (de facto and by implication the role of translation in all senses of that term

- books and reading – collections – knowledge

- language and philosophy

- magic, witches, transmigration, arcana, “horror”

- sci fi and fantasy

- The Writer, The Book (questions of the nature of what a book or text should be

- hence – the ‘magical’ role of stories

- sleep, REM (dreams again) and sleeplessness

- Benjamin wanted to write a book completely composed of quotations –Jack also – or almost?

- book titles as chapter titles

- Illuminations – hence “seeing” and not seeing

- blindness – sleeplessness – forgetting

- Blindness – of a ‘seer’ – but also ‘moral blindness’ to the ‘truth’

- Evil v good (and other oppositions or “contrasts” e.g. Hitler has a dog, Joyce fears dogs, Eva has or had a cat, Hitler v Ovid of the Third Reich or Augustus’s Rome and so on)

- “high” v “low” culture – Britney Spears and comics v Ovid, Celan and Mandelstam etc

- Eros in all its guises

- exile – hence the state of the poet – the alienated artist and so on

- love, compassion, seen particularly in the opening section between Eva and her “master” and paradoxically between Eva von Braun and Hitler – BEFORE he was clearly the monster we now, perhaps too automatically, think of him as.

How do you respond to my musings here?

Jack: I like it. Clearly on my wavelength. I guess all the stuff about slaves and dictators makes it obvious that I’m interested in power relations and how they deform (and inform) personal relations. And – I hope – that I’m interested in these things not because they’re “central to my work,” or any other wanky artist’s cliché but because if you’re not interested in these things then you must be crazy. We really are in trouble. We really do need new ways of thinking about these things. And anyone who starts scoffing and saying, “Oh yes, of course that’s all been done – the idea of silence as expression, that’s in von Hoffmansthal, and that idea of reforming the world with your writings, that’s an old cliché from the thirties” is basically just braindead. It’s really the equivalent of saying, “Oh yes, that idea of breathing in and out – that’s been done, you know – or that idea of not beating the shit out of every second person you meet: that goes back to Kierkegaard, you know …” Sorry to rant. I think I spend too much time in the company of comfortable, well-fed, know-it-all academics.

Richard: Do you think that there are too many “strands” or “themes” in EMO?

Jack: Well, there’s a lot of stuff in there, certainly. I make no apology about that. Too much is a value judgement every reader will have to make for themselves. I’d say there were too many plots and stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, myself – it’s not a particularly unified work. Is EMO so overpacked as to be incoherent, I guess you’re asking. I’m sure some readers will think so. But I suppose the readers I want are the ones who like to read into things – who don’t expect everything to present itself elegantly on the surface so they can move on to the next thing as rapidly as possible. Nobody’s obligated to dive into EMO. I hope, in fact, that only the people who get a kick out of that kind of thing do. It’s hard to see it seriously comparing with the Cantos or Finnegans Wake or Maximus or those other twentieth-century whales when it comes to being packed with material, though. Even Moby Dick or Tristram Shandy, for that matter.

Richard: I don't see EMO as only a novel. In fact I don't see it fitting into any particular genre. (Although I would argue it is a narration, if not a typical, or "popular" narrative, whose purpose and meaning is complex.) I would say that EMO is multi-textual and involves (like Nights and The Imaginary Museum) many visual elements. It also connects to popular and high culture and so on. While it has an objective purpose it has "subjectivity" to the extent that your passions (for 1001 Nights, for Ovid, (and hence for books -for use and collection - and thus for writing itself), for Science Fiction, for other writers such as Borges, Poe, Apuleius (who links via his The Golden Ass and his Metamorphoses*), to the 1001 Nights and Ovid, for translation, for stories, and so on, are intermixed here in what is a complex weave.

Jack: I’d certainly concur with that. And again, I don’t claim any great originality there. It’s got a lot of competing generic elements (as do Kathy Acker’s “novels”). I chose the designation “novel” for it for various reasons, I guess:

1. because it sounds more approachable (and therefore salable) than calling it an “experimental text” or something like that.

2. because I’m in love with the idea of the novel form: a genre so debatable, so potentially all-inclusive that it can straddle bourgeois fiction, magic realism, Apuleius, traditional Chinese & Japanese forms, and virtually anything else you can throw at it. Where are its limits, in fact? We haven’t reached them yet.

Richard: Did you deliberately place the text that is “horizontal”, which I call the “subtext”, and which contains all the stories and other texts on your other Blogs etc, in such a way that it obscures the “main text”? This “slowing the reader” down, making the reader pay attention to the process of your writing? Jack: Yes, that was one reason. A literal metaphor for the contextualising we all do when we try to make sense of one text in terms of another. Really, though, it was because I saw some letters written in the early nineteenth-century, around the Jane Austen era, where the writer had crossed the text – written first horizontally, then vertically, on the same piece of paper – with every confidence that their correspondent would make sense of it. That was done purely to conserve paper, of course (at a premium during the Napoleonic wars, I understand). But it just looked so fantastic – so impenetrable and mysterious. I immediately started to wonder how one could reproduce that effect in a printed book.

Why should one bother is I guess one valid question, but the answer must be because it enables you to literally incorporate many texts in one. There are, then, three books contained within the one book of EMO. There’s the principal text on top, the three novellas, but underneath that there’s a complete book of critical essays on the Thousand and One Nights (written by me, of course, but attributed in context to the main male character in the Eva Ave story – insofar as that isn’t me. I created him, and he wrote my book, so in a sense he is me, but of course he’s also fictionalised and gifted with a lot of ideas, opinions and character traits which I certainly hope aren’t true of me, since I find them quite abhorrent). As well as that there’s a book of 15 collage-poems (mostly published in brief magazine at various times) called Jack’s Metamorphoses, which includes a set of 15 short essays on the numerous English verse translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. So that’s three books in one: fiction, poetry and essays all bound into the one cover. But as well as that I include the Latin text of Ovid’s exile-letters from the Black Sea underneath the third section of the book, Ovid in Otherworld.

All of that is there. But of course there has to be a fictional justification for it in the world of the book itself as well. And that is basically that the (blind) almost-invisible protagonist of the whole narrative, who’s presumably dreaming up all these stories and printing them out, has accidentally started to use a set of pages which already had writing on them. He can’t see the effect, but we do. That’s also why the texts underneath are running backwards, in reverse to the flow of the top, “executive” narratives. That’s what would happened if you picked up a stack of Xeroxed pages and run it through a printer backwards.

Richard: Further to this – the subtext either adds or subtracts to the reader’s response to the main text almost as if we are looking at two waves or weaves of ideas. And thus the reader is challenged to either “give up”, or to fight on in what is literally an even more obscure book. I mean obscure in the sense of literally not being easy to even see especially for such as myself with relatively diminished eye site (no problems - just age and I have lost my glasses – I need a new set). In addition, like you other books, I found I had to turn the book. This "forcing " or challenging the reader, and this use of open form and writing at 'angles' etc, goes back at least to Mallarmé and then Apollinaire, through to Olson and later to such as Susan Howe. To read some of the last part of the Maximus Poems I saw Creeley rotating the whole book at lecture here in 1996.

Jack: Books are physical objects. They have many other manifestations as well – in the minds (and hearts?) of their readers; in oral/ aural form at a reading or on a CD – but I think it’s important to remind people of that. The last thing I want is a complete opacity of form that defeats potential readers, but I don’t want an (apparent) completely transparent interface of form and content which stops them asking questions about the relationship between the two. I think the top-text of the book is almost completely legible throughout, except on one or two pages – the crossed-texts below are a different story. Those are only occasionally legible. I hope that helps to make them seem more intriguing, but I was aware that some readers might find that frustrating. That’s why so much of their content is available online. For the curious who want to follow up on the other books within this one.

Richard: There are hundreds of comments and questions I could ask but this would get too long for now. Lastly, a couple more – the images, photos, symbols, diagrams and the font changes and alternations; together with trace of the subtext “behind” the main text make this book quiet visually and conceptually exciting for me. Apart from all else the very layout of the book has a kind of beauty.

Jack: I hope so. It took an awful long time to achieve some of those effects, I must say. I was on the edge of my seat till the very last minute to see how the printers would deal with that bleached-out subtext and deliberately boldened top-text. It had to be at least potentially readable to work …

Richard: You are quite interested in codes and symbols? I gathered that by the text and the book Arthur Gordon Pym – the first novel by Edgar Allan Poe? A book that ends with a revelation but then is added a preface (at the end – I only “know” this thanks to Wiki!) which is by Pym! And Poe could or boasted could, crack any code…one thinks of “Gold Bug”, and his “who dunnits”. And we have also an echo here of EMO itself? Perhaps also a book where the author keeps shifting…it seems that once we are “inside” the narrative we are not sure who the protagonists is. You “quote” other books. Poe copied out whole sections of another book into Pym. Expectations of genre are “violated” by the author or authors? The visions seen at the end of the Otherworld [and other world is a book by a certain F S Flint who apart from other things was of Pound’s circle a great translator as pound was] or Mars section is the second rebirth? The first “Ovid” is executed (we are not sure) in part one.

Jack: Yes, I guess that “being interested” in codes and symbols is putting it mildly. I’m a huge admirer of Poe’s work. The nineteenth-century French (Baudelaire and Mallarmé principal among them) were entirely correct in their assessment of his genius, in my opinion. What I like best about him, though, is not so much that wowing-the-public-with-his-own-cleverness stuff (though he was undoubtedly very clever), as the way he can write intensely seriously in one mode while simultaneously taking the mickey out of it. Compare (for instance) “The Pit and the Pendulum” with the much-less-well-known spoof “How to Write a Blackwoods’ Article.” Arthur Gordon Pym is his only novel – if you can call it a novel – and it’s bizarre almost beyond description. The second section of EMO, set on “Mars”, is the one which seems to have caused most difficulties even to sympathetic readers. I’m not sure I’d want to take self-consciousness as far as Poe does, but I do feel my own bizarreries rather pale beside certain aspects of Pym (Jules Verne actually wrote a sequel to it in which he tidied up and rationalised a lot of the strangeness – I’m not sure he really understood what Poe was getting at in the first place, but then, does anyone?)

Richard: I haven’t talked about the writing – the interviews and the translations often have writing that is in my view quite brilliant. Ovid’s Tristias work well by restraint as well as the strange one-sided conversations, or e-versations, of the psychologist nurse who is supposedly looking after Ovid-The Author. (We, the readers, are not sure of anything as, indeed, there are so many riddling transformations and “translations” in this book. It is not clear even within the narrative, which narrative is the true one or who is dreaming and who is in fact simply mad!)) And much is quite moving. Also of course there is a “cold level” and a lot of “diurnal grind” (to ostentatiously quote Geoffrey Hill who wrote – of course, King Log, whose rather dark but beautiful opening poem you quote!); there is the mundane. This seems to interact by contrast, or resistance, to the more “epiphanic" moments”. Jack: Yes, a novel needs a certain duration to achieve its effects of contrast. There must be a diurnal grind of sorts, but I think you’ll agree that I’ve been pretty sparing with it. My rule of thumb is that if it bores me, it’s likely to bore a reader. Personally I love intensely-detailed realist texts, but I’m not sure that I see a serious need for more of them to be cranked out at this date in time. I have no problem with people writing them, just as I see no reason why people shouldn’t paint photo-realist landscapes and portraits still, but advances in technology inevitably do have an effect on the logic of artistic practice. Has a century of stories told in film changed what we can expect of written narratives? Some would say not, but I think that there’s no need to write in the same old way when other genres can handle certain aspects of traditional fiction better – or at any rate differently. I think a book should need to be a book. EMO could only be a book. It could perhaps be filmed, but all that would mean is that certain aspects of it inspired a film-maker. The result would be closer to the relationship between Cronenberg’s film and Burrough’s book of Naked Lunch, or (for that matter) Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books alongside The Tempest. Traditional “adaptation” from one medium to another seems a pretty odd idea to me anyway. In this case it would be quite simply impossible.

Richard: Doubles? Symmetries? “Ovid v divO", "Eva avE", Dog v Cat, (Hitler loved dogs, whereas Ovid like Joyce – also near blind most of his life - is frightened of dogs.)

Jack: Oh yeah, if you want to hunt them out, there’s quite a few. I like excessive patterning (you might have noticed). I like it because it’s excessive, perhaps – surplus to requirements. It’s a characteristic of early forms of prose narrative that they tend to be excessively patterned and symmetrical – I wrote an essay about it comparing the storytelling patterns and parallelisms in certain stories in the Arabian Nights with those found in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (you’ll find it in one of the under-texts of EMO). It’s not just something that “mature” novel traditions grow out of, though. Dickens is a classic case of a writer whose stories get more and more elaborately patterned and over-determined as he gets older. If you prefer Pickwick or Nicholas Nickleby to Our Mutual Friend or (extreme case) Edwin Drood, you won’t exactly thrill to my similar addictions.

Richard: There are so many connections. On page 196 - where the chapter is titled “Blinding” you have an image of what appears to be either camera shutter or an Iris (Iris referred to earlier also); this is quite strange and beautiful…and on the next page in another Tristia poem:

If anyone still remembers me

back in the city

think of a wheel of stars

that never sinks


for days

the lines are down

I see here at least three “themes”, such as the sadness of exile, and the cruelty of Augustus-Hitler; questions of history (as in Geoffrey Hill’s work). And exile is effectively death for Ovid-The Poet (especially Ovid as he hated to be away from the city and civilization). The reference to “memory” again, the lack of communication; and another reference to the power blackout (and of course you play with “Black Power” in the same poem!) in Auckland in 1998) previously mentioned (in the subtext; and indeed the connection of the symbol to a “wheel of stars” – almost Poundian line from The Cantos; but of course the symbol is of an eye – or like an eye.

Jack: So many connections, yes. On the one hand the point is that there should be many connections – regardless of their actual nature – since the book is about complex interweaving systems and the curious similarities between them, about (in the final analysis) the possibility of learning by analogy how to solve one problem in terms of another. The problems, misunderstandings, mutual hurts and bruisings of inter-personal relations are at the heart of the book – but then that’s because the personal is the political. The two cannot be separated. Some people feel quite sincerely, I would acknowledge, that it’s quite advantageous to pigeonhole them and consider them in separate terms, but I believe equally strongly that that’s a pernicious fallacy – shown to be so by repeated callous abuses of power on every level. Interconnection, then, is everything in this book (as it is everywhere else, so far as I can see). The fact that you can tease out that particular set of connections so elegantly, though, reassures me that they are coherent in context. There’s a risk of disappearing into a cloud of interconnectedness when you begin to see universal patterns in everything. Specificity is, after all, the job of any fiction.

Richard: It seems that another issue is highlighted especially in the first part of the book when Eva tries to contact her “sister” (from whom she is cloned – and the moral ethical issue of cloning is of course here also); and then we see both the Writer and Eva struggling for contact. So the reader is faced with the dilemma or question: what is it that makes us human? How do we realize or convey love? (This I feel becomes more urgent as the middle section exposes us to scenes of madness, vivisection, sadomasochistic orgies and killings, horror, nightmare and so on.) The pathetic, but surprisingly moving (because so well written), story of the Cat that Eva tries to befriend, is significant here. (I am also reminded obliquely of David Lyndon Brown's novel Marked Men).

Jack: Yes, and I guess that brings us full circle, really. Why on earth would anyone want to write a novel called EMO, enshrining emotionalism, when Emo (as a style) is so naff, so despised by the cool-at-heart? (I saw a great t-shirt in a café the other day with a picture of a great big pale crying face with greasy black hair and the inscription “Cheer Up, Emo Kid!” – I wish I could get one of those for myself …) If you don’t get the bit about the cat in the Eva section, the book can mean nothing to you. It’s over the top, it’s sentimental, but if you don’t feel any qualms at the destruction of innocence, at the suffering of the helpless, then you’re not really human, it seems to me. It’s perhaps ruthless of me to make the test such a severe one – the reign of irony in literature has almost succeeded in persuading us all that emotion must always be approached in a circumspect way, handled with kid gloves, treated like a kind of unexploded bomb. To hell with that, I say. I can certainly see analogies there with David Brown’s work – with his poetry as well as the novel you mention.

If we were in good shape as a culture, a civilisation – just a few little glitches here and there – I’d have no problem with a bit of decent restraint. But we’re not. We’re in deep trouble, possibly worse than we’ve ever been in. Time to take off the blinkers and call things as we see them. Eva and her cat are certainly not in the book by accident.

Ovid was a big cry-baby, too. Critics used to apologise for the “unmanly” tone of his begging letters from exile, but now they’ve rather changed their tune. Not because of any advances in literary critical understanding (perish the thought!) but because history has intervened. How can you understand Ovid if you don’t know about Hitler and Stalin? Augustus’s gulag may have looked a bit better than the Soviet one, but it’s hard for cushioned liberals to understand the pitiful crushing of human personality achieved by totalitarianism throughout the ages. I respect Ovid’s pain. It wouldn’t occur to me to sit in judgement on such a man and criticise his “tone.” How does Shakespeare put it? He jests at scars, that never felt a wound. That’s about right, I think.

Richard: Is Metamorphoses the alternative name?

Jack: It can be if you want it to be. Strictly speaking, Jack’s Metamorphoses is the title of one of the underlying texts in the book, the collection of poems. Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass is also called (in Latin) Metamorphoses, of course – and I guess you can see how much I’ve been influenced by it. It’s certainly in my top ten favourite books, if not my favourite of all. You can see it in this book as much as the more directly invoked Ovidian epic. So, yes, this book is the conclusion to a conversation about the idea of Metamorphosis or change conducted through all three parts of the trilogy, Bruno, Atlantis, and EMO. The titlepage of the first novel in the sequence includes a quote from an Italian book about Giordano Bruno, in fact:

II fine di tutto l’operazione è forse essenzialmente questo, modificarsi.

[The point of the whole operation is perhaps just this, in essence:



Wednesday, February 02, 2011

What are Kiwi troops doing in Egypt?

After initially relegating the revolutionary turmoil in Egypt to the back pages of papers and the fag-ends of television news bulletins, New Zealand's media now seems to have decided that the massive protests in Cairo, Alexandria and a dozen other cities deserve to be discussed ahead of such weighty matters as Phil Goff's hair dye and the guest list for the forthcoming Rugby World Cup. The Egyptian revolution has led the television news for the past couple of nights, and this morning's New Zealand Herald features a long report from the streets of Cairo as well as analyses of the situation in Egypt by Kim Sengupta, Anne Penketh, and Wynne Dyer.

But the New Zealand media is still struggling to relate events in Egypt to life in this much more tranquil part of the world. Television news has featured interviews with members of the small Egyptian New Zealand community, and former All Black Frank Bunce, who was caught up in the streetfighting in Cairo while making a travel programme and had to return home early, has been asked at length about his impressions of the revolution.

The Kiwi media has so far failed, though, to discuss the longstanding military connection that this country has had with the regime of the embattled Hosni Mubarak. For nearly thirty years, New Zealand troops have been stationed in the desert of the Sinai peninsula as part of a little-known but strategically significant army called the Multinational Force and Observers.

The Multinational Force and Observers has its origins in the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace, which was brokered by US President Jimmy Carter and signed by Menachem Begin and the Egyptian dictator Anwar Al-Sadat in 1979. The Treaty ended the state of war which had existed between Egypt and its neighbour since 1948, and provided for the evacuation of Israeli forces and settlements from the Sinai peninsula. In return for getting back Sinai, which Israel had occupied during the Six Day War of 1967, Egypt agreed to keep almost all of its army out of the peninsula and to allow an international force to patrol the area alongside its borders with Israel and Gaza. The Multinational Force and Observers was deployed in this border region in 1981.

The deal between Israel and Egypt was widely greeted, in the West at least, as a diplomatic breakthrough that would clear the way for a wider peace in the Middle East. But the Treaty was less popular in the Arab world, because it did nothing to address the longstanding grievances of the Palestinian people. Many of the Palestinians had been driven from their homes during the fighting which surrounded the establishment of Israel in 1948, and during the Six Day War of 1967 the Palestinian territories of West Bank and the Gaza Strip had been occupied by Israeli troops. Egypt had always presented itself as a champion of the Palestinians, and one of the stated aims of the Yom Kippur War it launched in 1973 was to liberate the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians had seen the massive army Egypt kept along Israel's southern frontier as a symbol of Arab pride, and as a constraint on Israeli behaviour in Gaza and on the West Bank. By making the deal with Israel, Sadat seemed to be abandoning the Palestinians.

Many Egyptians had been angry at Sadat over the 1979 Treaty, and in 1981 he was assassinated. Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat, and continued with his policy of working closely with Israel and with the United States. The United States rewarded Mubarak's friendship by supplying him with more than a billion dollars of military aid every year.

In the aftermath of the 1979 Treaty, Egypt and Israel jointly constructed a station on the border between Gaza and Egypt. The Rafah Border Crossing, as it was officially and rather euphemistically known, was placed under the sole control of Israel, despite the fact that it connected Egypt and Palestine. Israel kept a tight grip on the Rafah station, frustrating the desire of Gazans to use it for trade and travel.

In 1987, after two decades of occupation by Israel, the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip launched the uprising that quickly became known as the intifada. The intifada has continued intermittently since 1987, as negotiations between Palestinian authorities and Israel have waxed and waned, and Israel has withdrawn from and reoccupied various portions of Palestinian territory.

Israel has succeeded in containing the intifada, and in retaining effective control over the Palestinian territories, partly because it has been able to use the Rafah border station and the buffer of the Sinai peninsula to isolate Gaza from the outside world. Although Israel handed control of the Rafah station back to Egypt in 2005, the Mubarak government has followed Israel's wishes by severely constraining the movement of goods and people across the border. At the request of Israel, Mubarak has often banned the movement of even such essential goods as concrete and steel into Gaza. The border has been closed altogether for long periods.

Because of the way that Israel and Mubarak have isolated the Gaza Strip from the rest of the world, Palestinians and their supporters have frequently spoken of the territory being kept under siege. Convoys of ships manned by pro-Palestinian activists have repeatedly attempted to lift the siege by landing goods on the coast of Gaza. Dozens of tunnels have been dug under the border between Gaza and Egypt, and used to smuggle goods into the Strip.
The Multinational Force and Observers plays an important role in maintaining the siege of Gaza Strip. The 1,700 members of the MFO are stationed close to the Strip, and have the authority to seize and detain any Palestinians or pro-Palestinian activists who cross the border of the Gaza Strip into Egypt without the authority of the Mubarak regime. By patrolling the deserts of the eastern Sinai peninsula incessantly, the MFO's soldiers also keep Egyptians away from the Gaza Strip.

Despite the important role it plays in one of the world's most famous conflict zones, the MFO remains a little-known organisation. Because the 1979 deal between Sadat and Israel was unpopular with Arabs, the United Nations refused to take responsibility for the MFO. The force was established instead by the United States, and is still dominated by American troops. The MFO has repeatedly come under attack over the years. In 1984 its Director-General was assassinated in Rome; in 2006 two of its vehicles were targeted by suicide bombers in the Sinai desert.

New Zealand has had soldiers serving in Egypt as part of the MFO since 1982. Currently twenty-seven Kiwis are part of the force; some of them are part of a Training and Advisory Team, while others serve as footsoldiers. In the few statements it makes about New Zealand's contribution to the MFO, our government tends to talk about the role of the force in creating 'peace' and 'stability' in the Middle East. It is hard to see, though, how the continued isolation of the Gaza Strip has produced anything but suffering and violence.

The protest rallies, occupations, and strikes which have brought cities like Cairo and Alexandria to a standstill over the past week have been an overwhelming repudiation of the policies of Hosni Mubarak's dictatorial regime. While Egyptians are angry at a lack of democracy and at 'free' market policies which have sent food prices and unemployment soaring, they have also been speaking out against Mubarak's longstanding support for Israel and the United States. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the more secular forces linked to Mohamed El Baradei have condemned Mubarak's role in the siege of Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood demands a referendum on Sadat's 1979 deal with Israel.

The Egypt-Israel Treaty of Peace was doomed to failure because it was conducted above the heads of the Egyptian and Arab people by a dictator, and because it ignored the plight of the Palestinians. The Multinational Force and Observers, which was founded to implement the terms of this flawed peace deal, has become an obstacle to genuine peace in the Middle East. Only a democraticaly-constituted Egyptian government can make a legitimate and lasting peace deal with Israel, and only Palestinian territories free of the spectres of occupation and siege can negotiate with Israel on anything like equal terms.

If it wants to support the cause of peace in the Middle East, New Zealand should withdraw its troops from the MFO and call for the lifting of the siege of Gaza and the end of the Mubarak regime. At the very least, New Zealanders ought to have a serious and informed public debate about their longstanding contribution to the obscure army that patrols the Sinai desert.