Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Garrett flunks history, again

Throughout his short and disastrous parliamentary career death penalty advocate David Garrett was seen, by supporters and opponents alike, as the political equivalent of a pit bull terrier, unleashed by an Act Party determined to put the red meat issue of crime and punishment near the top of its agenda. Garrett's often coarse language and buffoonish behaviour reinforced his image as an aggressively unrepentant redneck.

Garrett, though, has always considered himself as a rare and important thinker. With a self-confidence which is almost touching, he has for years now been producing letters to editors, op-ed articles, and blog posts that offer his views on subjects as differently abstruse as Polynesian horticulture, the evolution of New Zealand's constitution, and the demographics of 1970s India.

Garrett was forced to resign from parliament last year, after a dissident faction of Act let the media know that their party's fire and brimstone law and order spokesman had a carefully-hidden conviction for identity theft. The media gleefully spread the news, and Garrett's political opponents solemnly pronounced him unfit for public office. Garrett's crime was bizarre - he scoured a graveyard for the stone of a deceased child, stole the child's name and then used it to gain a passport - but it seemed to me no stranger and no more sinister than some of the writing he has exposed to public scrutiny over the years.

Back in 2007 I criticised an opinion piece Garrett had written for the New Zealand Herald about Tuhoe history and the iwi's desire for autonomy. Garrett's article blamed economic underdevelopment in Tuhoe Country on Maori indolence and incompetence, and mocked the notion of a Tuhoe nation or autonomous region. For all the confidence of his prose, Garrett seemed unaware of the long history of Tuhoe self-determination in the nineteenth century, and of the willingness of Dick Seddon's Liberal government to acknowledge this autonomy early in the twentieth century. Garrett also seemed unaware of the long history of attempts by Pakeha governments to block economic development in Tuhoe Country - of the refusal to build roads into the Ureweras, despite Tuhoe offers of land and labour for that purpose, of the refusal to fund schools and other services properly, and of the locking up of Maori land in parks created by Wellington bureaucrats.

Last year, in one of a series of blog posts and comments which argued for a state-funded sterilisation programme to be established in New Zealand, Garrett hailed the eugenicist policies of the Indira-Sanjay Gandhi dictatorship which ruled India in the mid-70s.

As I noted in a reply to Garrett, the 'voluntary' sterilisation programme run by Sanjay Gandhi was actually aimed aggressively at lower caste Hindus, Muslims, and political enemies of the Gandhi dictatorship. EP Thompson, who travelled through India during the last months of the dictatorship, described 'operating vans' speeding through the streets of the cities; when the vans stopped, young men were bundled aboard them and vasectomised, whatever their protests.

Indians still remember and despise their government's crude attempt at population control, but Garrett pronounced it a 'success', and suggested it could be replicated in New Zealand.

Public disgrace and departure from parliament have not diminished Garrett's desire to share his political and historical insights with his fellow Kiwis. Just a few days ago Garrett left a series of comments at the right-wing Kiwiblog website. Garrett used Kiwiblog to warn of the danger of 'Maori thugs' taking control of New Zealand's beaches, and to criticise Green Party MPs like Catherine Delahunty and David Clendon for their excessive sympathy to Maori culture.

Garrett decided to garnish one of his contributions to Kiwiblog with a little historical allusion:

Delahunty is an reconstructed communist of the worst kind, and Clendon is one of those clowns who wishes they had 50% instead of 5% Maori blood…as an aside, when mad Delahunty sprinkes her speeches with te reo, Hone [Harawira] could hardly conceal the contempt and derision on his face…he quite clearly regards the Greens as the same kind of useful idiots Lenin thought trade unionists were….

When he praised the Gandhi regime's sterilisation programme Garrett was at least discussing a real historical event. When he tries to drag Lenin into his diatribe against Maori, though, Garrett is using a completely false quote.

There is a myth, which has its origins in the frosty early years of the Cold War, which holds that Lenin referred to Western supporters of his Bolshevik revolution as 'useful idiots'. The phrase is supposed to illustrate Lenin's ruthless cynicism: it suggests that the Bolshevik leader would take support, whether in the form of favourable propaganda or cash, from left-wingers living abroad, but would be happy to thrown these kind souls into a gulag if they were ever foolish enough to settle in the new society he was building.

Yet the phrase 'useful idiots' appears nowhere in the fifty-odd volumes of Lenin's essays, articles, pamphlets, speeches, and marginalia. The phrase appears, instead, in They Never Said It, a collection of 'fake quotes, misquotes, and misleading attributions' edited by Paul Boller and John George.

David Garrett's latest historical howler is in some respects doubly impressive. He has not only used a well-known fabricated quote, but he has managed to depart from the normal interpretation of that quote, by claiming that Lenin was referring to trade unionists rather than to foreign sympathisers. Garrett not only can't get his facts straight - he can't even, it seems, lie competently.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Crossing cultures

The internet is an excellent place in which to issue ringing denunciations, especially when your name is Anonymous. A particularly resonant denunciation was recently issued at the Hand Mirror blog, and I was perhaps one of its mysterious author's targets:

Just remember, pakeha, that while it's your duty to learn about Maori culture no matter how much you learn you will never truly understand it because ITS NOT YOURS.

Makes me sick to see pakeha people telling Maori people "Oh yes I understand Maori tradition, I understand Maori culture". No, you don't. You can watch it and learn about it but you can never understand it because you are not part of the tangata whenua.

Learning is good if it empowers indigenous people. But too often "learning" about Maori culture is just a way for pakeha people to claim they don't need to empower indigenous people because they "understand" their culture.

I wouldn't want to disagree entirely, or even mostly, with this statement. I believe that there are regions of Maori culture - of every culture - which are special, and which are inaccessible to outsiders, or else only accessible to very careful outsiders. But there are also many places where different cultures overlap or collide, and where dialogue and borrowing are not only possible but inevitable.

In an archive where I have done some research lately there are a few unpublished letters written by the nineteenth century prophet and guerrilla leader Te Kooti, and an unpublished diary kept by the twentieth century Waikato heroine Princess Te Puea.

I think these documents must be fascinating, and if they were published and translated by someone else I would read them with great interest, but I've never ordered them up from the vaults and looked at them myself, even though access to them is not restricted.

I think that to handle materials like Te Kooti's letters and Te Puea's writings one would need to be immersed in the history and culture of Te Kooti's Ringatu Church and Te Puea's Kingitanga movement respectively. There's a level of background knowledge required which could be gained only by living inside those 'worlds', either as a result of being born into them or making a meticulous entry into them.

I don't think it would be impossible for a Pakeha scholar to handle the texts - certainly, Judith Binney, the sadly missed biographer of Te Kooti and historian of Tuhoe, seemed to deal pretty well with a lot of Maori written and oral material - but they're not something which any Pakeha could pick up and handle without arduous preparation.

I'd make a distinction between Te Kooti's sacred writings and, say, some of the key events of his life. These events - battles, peace marches, flights into exile, returns from exile - are well-known, and are part of the history of Pakeha as well as Maori New Zealanders. Many writers, Pakeha as well as Maori, have been inspired to write about Te Kooti, so that he has become a character in poems, songs, and at least one novel, Maurice Shadbolt's popular Season of the Jew.

I would argue that Te Kooti has become, in a sense, a mythopoetic figure, like Odysseus or Alexander the Great, and that his deeds can resonate imaginatively across distant cultures.

The unashamedly Pakeha Kendrick Smithyman wrote some important poems about different aspects of Te Kooti's life: he composed one about a visit to Te Porere, the last battle pa Te Kooti built, and another about Te Kooti's strangely amicable last meeting with Gilbert Mair, the Pakeha commander who had chased round the North Island for years. Smithyman's poems aren't attempts to steal Te Kooti, or to 'write like a Maori': they are attempts to set up a dialogue between Pakeha and Maori history and thought.

When Judith Binney came to write her biography of Te Kooti, she included, as one of her appendices, a selection of songs and poems that Pakeha writers like Smithyman had produced about Te Kooti. She argued that these texts have become a part of the traditions which surround Te Kooti.

Before anyone criticises the Pakeha writers who have made Te Kooti into a subject, they ought to remember that Te Kooti himself was a great investigator of and borrower from other cultural traditions. He took the Old Testament and reinterpreted it in a Maori light, making his people into 'Jews'; he took the European tradition of realistic figurative painting and put it inside the extraordinary meeting houses that the Ringatu Church raised in his honour.

The sort of complex interplay between cultures which Te Kooti and Smithyman in their different ways practiced mocks attempts to put up 'off limits - no entry' signs around one or another culture and history.

As a sort of feeble salute to cross-cultural artistic inspiration, and as an admission that I suffer from what Osip Mandelstam called 'a homesickness for world culture', I wanted to post a poem which recently managed to annoy that distinguished scholar of classical Greek culture, Ted Jenner. After I sent him the poem, my long-suffering friend complained that I'd needlessly pulled not only Homer and Odysseus but his hero, the mysterious pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, out of their properly European context, and placed them in the South Pacific.

My problem, Ted, is that my imagination keeps putting Odysseus in Tonga, not in the Mediterranean, and insists on Heraclitus as a boozy Greek-cum-Aussie fisherman, not some ancient and irretrievable mystic.

Anonymous polemicists should be feel free to use the comments box under this post.

Homer and Heraclitus

Say that Homer and Heraclitus are getting blind drunk
on a bottle of ouzo, in the back room of a cheap Greek
restaurant, on Lonsdale Street, sometime in the fifties,
before the smell of fish got washed out
of the gutters, before the Melbourne cops
stopped taking bribes, before tourists
chased the gangsters away.

Say that Homer went blind
transcribing and revising his poems
after mass literacy made his recitals

Say that Heraclitus lost his eyes
on an Arctic trawler,
after the crew ran out of vodka
and cracked open the meths.
(Say that it hardly seemed to matter,
in the middle of a winter-long night.
At least the dark was warm, after half a glass.)

Say that poet and philosopher
deserve their private room, and their booze.
Neither will see out the summer.
(Say that Homer moves down Lonsdale at the speed
of a walking frame, that Heraclitus smells
like the inside
of a colostomy bag.)

Do the blind old men
toast their health?
Do they reach out
across the table,
listening to the half-melted cubes
knocking together (like smooth-cornered dice
in an old gambler's cup?)
then wait for their frosted glasses
to clink politely, or to strike
a single, sharp note,
or to grind against each other
like floes of ice?

Never mind. In Ithaca, or some other piece
of Polynesia, Ulysses has just tethered his listing ship
to a banyan tree, left his comrades to their duty-free booze,
and headed uphill, through an overgrown plantation,
toward the pou and the kumara beds
of the papakainga. Say that he is filled with space and time.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Beyond particulars

Robert Fisk gave a lecture a couple of years ago at the University of Auckland's Law School, in a little hall where visiting academics and nervous postgraduate students normally deliver papers on the intricacies of corporate tax regulations or nineteenth century maritime conventions to steadily thinning audiences.
On the day of Fisk's appearance the hall was packed, so that members of the audience had to sit in the aisles or stand near the doors. With his sunburnt, sweating face screwed up in agitation, Fisk spoke in his loud, occasionally hoarse voice for over an hour, yet nobody left the hall. What Fisk offered was not an argument or a narrative, but rather a series of images - burnt-out tanks in the Iraqi desert, the rubble of downtown Beirut after an Israeli bombing raid, a child with a bomb strapped to his back like a schoolbag - which were at once shocking and instantly familiar. We recognised the images not only from the footage we'd seen on Al Jazeera, CNN and the rest of the twenty-four hour news stations, but also from the prodigous body of superbly impressionistic journalism which Fisk has produced during decades of service in the Middle East.
When members of the audience finally asked the famous journalist a few questions - about the state of Middle Eastern politics, the vicissitudes of American foreign policy, and the notion of a just war, amongst other subjects - his answers were unexpectedly short and banal. Europeans are in the Middel East because they have a colonial mindset, Fisk declared. The West is fond of oil. George Bush did bad things because he was, well, a bad man. There is a lot of evil in the world.
There was a peculiar sense, though, that what Fisk actually said to his audience was irrelevant. What was important was where he had been, what he had seen, who he had met. Fisk had interviewed Osama bin Laen, had rode into a war zone on an Iranian tank, had walked through Beirut as bombs fell around him. To an audience of mostly young people from tranquil New Zealand, Fisk represented an exotic world of war, high stakes diplomacy, and revolution. Fisk represented history.
Over the past week Tariq Ali has been delivering a series of lectures at the University of Auckland, and drawing very large crowds. Like Robert Fisk, Ali has been a witness to a series of political and military storms over the past four decades. But where Fisk likes to do his reporting from the back of a jeep, and is more comfortable in a bullet proof vest than a dinner jacket, Ali is a suave figure who seems, these days at least, as comfortable in a research library as on the frontlines.
Fisk is a relentlessly brave and precise documentor of the bloody particulars of Middle East conflicts, but he has little besides rhetoric and hunches to fall back on when he is confronted with the problem of generalising his experiences. Ali, on the other hand, is at home with synthesis and summary. Where Fisk's prose describes tank movements and artillery barrages, the long articles Ali has written on a series of Middle Eastern and Asian nations for the New Left Review and the London Review of Books in recent years describe the movement of capital and the eddy and flow of ideologies. Ali was a supporter of Trotskyist outfit the International Secretariat of the Fourth International back in the 1970s, when its intellectual godfather was the Belgian polymath Ernest Mandel, and the influence of Mandel's lapidarian brand of Marxism can still be seen in his work.
Ali is probably the most radical thinker to be chosen to deliver the annual Douglas Robb series of lectures at Auckland university since his friend EP Thompson back in 1988, and it is especially pleasing to know that Stuart McCutcheon, the unctuous vice-chancellor of the university, has had to navigate his way through crowds of workers protesting against union-bashing policies on his way to this year's lectures.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Surviving Shenyang

[I blogged a year ago about Michael Arnold's rather long-winded and complicated wedding to Xuan, his Chinese-Vietnamese partner of many years. Mike made at least three visits to a mobile wardrobe during the photoshoot that accompanied the wedding ceremony, managing to preserve a superbly suave expression in the heat of Ho Chi Minh City as he posed with his wife on a bicycle, stared longingly into her eyes beside a sickly-green canal, and strew flowers into a breeze that may have been generated by a small electrical fan.

I'm very pleased to hear that Michael and Xuan have just produced a baby girl, and that the birth was apparently a lot less drawn-out than that marriage ceremony. Michael and Xuan have settled in Ho Chi Minh City - that's the politically correct name, since the triumph of the revolution in 1975, for Saigon - but Michael has spent most of the last decade in other parts of East Asia, especially China. Along with his fellow Sinologist Hamish Dewe, Michael has created a body of texts - travelogues, poems, urgent or desultory e mail epistles to friends and relatives in a half-missed, half-despised homeland - which acts as a sort of bridge between New Zealand and the vast and dymanic societies of South Asia.

Michael may have found a secure place for himself in Vietnam, living contentedly in a vast and ancient house staffed by in-laws who cook and clean for him, writing for a travel website, and exploring medieval Cham towers and brightly syncretic Bao Dei temples on his weekends - but his first encounter with Asia was troubled. He spent his first Chinese winter in Shenyang, a city in the cold north of the country which Le Corbusier might have designed in a very bad mood.

Full of curiousity, determined to socialise however cold and seedy his surroundings, and contemptuous of conventional medical wisdom, the young Michael Arnold became very sick in Shenyang, and was perhaps lucky not to be buried in the city. When he had recovered from the illness that laid him low for weeks, Michael produced a long piece of writing, as hallucinatory and as realistic as any really fightening nightmare. I published an edited version of the text in the thirty-third issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief; for many readers, Arnold's story, with its sickening but strangely sensuous details, was the most memorable piece of writing that the journal had carried in some time.
I thought I'd reproduce 'Shenyang' here, not because I want to bring back bad memories and diminish the joy that Michael and Xuan must be feeling over the birth of the first child, but to indicate some of the travails which Michael has faced and overcome during the last decade...]


Black snow brought inside on shoes marbles itself into wet swirls on every vacant patch of floor. Drop anything and you stain it. You can try to wash your hands when they've been soiled, but the faucet in the Zhongshan School bathroom never stops its unsterilised dribble of tap water, and the soap is greased and sticky in a grimy plastic cup. Look left at the wrong moment and you'll see the kid's mothers squatting in the non-cubicled girl's room, whose curtain is thankfully replaced now with a barely adequate saloon door. The men's room still has a curtain. I stand at the urinal and the man next to me begins clearing his throat, Shenyang's daily gooey anthem wrung out from men and girls alike; he makes his deposit next to the urinal, as opposed to in the bowl where it would be flushed away. It will be stood on by the next patron and traipsed throughout the building or out into the snow.

At Tie Xi school, where I teach an adult class, it is sometimes worse, when pipes periodically burst above the only squatting lavatories in the building. Used paper and feminine pads, both too thick for the drainage system, are stuffed together down a side gutter; sometimes it is impossible to flush, or the cistern is continuously emptying itself through cracks onto my coat. In my classroom, a rusted radiator ejects dark puddles of oily water alongside the main wall. I seem to be breathing in the chalk dust, which cakes onto my hands leaving grimy dry marks and thick moistureless skin cracking at the tips of my fingers.

Where there is ugliness without, there is often ugliness within. I was beginning to feel that Shenyang people suffer from a spiritual affliction, as if the greatest culture on Earth had been forced into cold, apartment blocks stinking vilely of smoke and old food and sewerage, and had become itself darkened. Everyone has some subtle evil about them; the nicest of my co-workers all have some connection with a forger or gang member or criminal, and can offer discounted rates on stolen or copyright-breached items. One remarked sadly, in the words of her own father, 'Chinese people have lost their decency'.

I wanted to visit a night-club. Friends of Xiao's offered to take me after one of my evening classes: they came to meet me in my room at Lan Ting before I left and wanted to watch TV until I returned. I had been lying on my bed all afternoon in lazy discomfort; the girls on TV had been rubbing face cream into their skin again, with a smile and a zenmeyang? which normally means 'how about it', but in this case meant 'buy this cream and be my mirror'. The girls outside have overdone it with stern masks of makeup over blotchy pockmarked skin, their slippery unshowered eyebrows rising like snakes over black irises. I watched them from the taxi window: the driver had decided to try his luck with a foreign passenger and attempt a longer route to Zhongshan Road to earn an extra buck or two, so I had plenty of time to watch all the pedestrians as we circumvented the main road that directly connects my hotel with the school. A plump woman attempted a spitball which the wind blew back over her fatty breasts. She wiped at the mess halfheartedly. At a roundabout I saw an older woman who had pushed her thick trousers down to her knees and was holding her shirt up as she crossed the road, moaning and waddling in snow-cold wind.

It was getting dark. My classes on that particular evening were my most difficult, filled with students who had no choice but to take the extra classes in English, because of the insistence of their parents. Love in these families descends from baba and mama in the form of scholastic pressure; the children are not rude, but unresponsive and unmotivated. The curriculum dictated that I should teach them the names of dinosaurs in this lesson; why a 12 year-old Chinese girl would need to learn the word Compsognathus I have no idea.

It was almost 9.00pm before I got in. They were still watching TV, another drama about people shooting people because of some girl. And the hero is sitting there in some bar, in a really old cotton shirt, with a bit of fluffy stubble, talking about shooting. The gangster arrives and they start open mouth kissing and he slips the bra strap off her shoulder, and that's all you see except when three suits bust down the door and shoot them while they're writhing under the silky sheets. These dramas are often more extreme, death counts can number in the thousands after half an hour, at which time the entertainment switches to a kung fu piece, heads get kicked away from the neck, fists crack into guts, reminding me of the constant fighting that can be seen in the real Shenyang. Someone shoves some other guy, punches are thrown, a serious amount of blood is spilled on the dirty pathway... it could be on the street, in a food court or anywhere.

I have a headache but we go anyway, and soon we are in a dark thumping room, and the chalk dust is sparkling ultraviolet like a star-field on my jersey, and we are seated at the balcony with a view of the floor in which a writhing girl in a bikini is threatening to take off her underwear. The thought that she's as unlikely to have showered within the last few days as has anyone else in the city makes this prospect rather unappealing. The proceedings at these venues always follow the same bizarre format: first, patrons come and order the amount of beer they expect to drink in the evening, which for reasons of 'face' means that more often than not a ridiculous number of bottles get piled up in boxes on tables. Then, instead of dancing, patrons are entertained by the most incongruous series of acts: vocalists might be expected, but when orchestral music oiled out of the speakers and a troupe of ballerinas emerged I was amazed. The ballerinas were followed by a circus act, as a couple and their daughter balanced everything possible on their noses. 'Yellow' (meaning pornographic) acts are next, but with the stern policemen positioned around the place, a fashion show with a flash of leg in a long skirt is as yellow as it gets. That is, of course, until the bikini girl comes out. She reaches for a microphone and delivers a stream of flawlessly beautiful Mandarin with the pronunciation of a newsreader. She thrusts her hips at the boozed gents in the front row. 'Zenmeyang?' I try to think of an appropriate Chinese phrase expressing disinterest.

Some of the faces at the front are local celebrities: they wander on stage at will to force bills at the dancers. One singer openly addresses a song to them, saying 'Please flirt with me'. And then it's all cleared away and the DJs come out, and the customers move into the centre to spend the remainder of the evening sweating over each other, until the enforced closing time at two o’clock. Dancing is led from beginning to end, the DJ mumbles phrases of hype-cool English into the microphone all night in between zenmeyangs, a woman in tight jeans and a crop top similarly provides a commentary on the rhythm as she twists in a cage. I dance near an edge, neighbours spot me and try to shake my hand in what appears to be a good-natured attempt to greet me and ask where I'm from. In context, it seemed an uncomfortable attention where none was necessary, what with them spinning in alcohol with too-wide eyes and grins. I was under protection anyway - one of my 'hosts' had elected to come downstairs with me. Earlier in the evening he'd offered to fix me up with girls if I got lonely in Shenyang, and now he took his job pretty seriously, grasping my hand at every disturbance on the dance floor. When a fight breaks out his big hands drag me to another side of the room.

Later, I am noticed by some slip of a twenty-something girl who drunkenly begins to thrust her chest into my back; but I'm looking in the other direction as I'm about to be approached by two sodden British boys...they step over, I don't stop dancing, they shake my hand. I see one of them at a later point crawl up on stage and hump one of the dancing girls; the police pull him down fast. I peek at the girl behind me - a superb job on the makeup – and notice that she now has another dance partner, whom she quickly shoves away in favour of yet another....ah, she the free agent I think, but she probably won't go home with some guy tonight, like she would in Auckland. These guys all live with their parents too.

The smoke and the beer are a little too much this evening, as they are the next night when we are taken out for Xiao's farewell dinner. It was put on by the family friend whom I'd quizzed about politics a few months earlier - he had threatened to check up on my Mandarin, which I was aware was less than up to scratch as it could have been with more effort on my part. I found I could understand a significant percentage of what he said, but without real clarity. He toasted me, but declined to swig the whole glass of beer as is the custom: he told me that if I'd understood one hundred per cent, he'd have sculled the lot in salute. Perhaps it was fair. Interminable karaoke followed, I gave a Faye ballad in an inappropriate key, finding I was unable to control my throat, which was beginning to ache. I wanted to go home, but was bound by politeness for at least ten more vibrating numbers... finally Xiao managed to find an acceptable excuse for going home, and I mumbled farewells before wandering home on the freezing streets, the streetlights seeming to bend over me, streetsellers balanced on mounds of ice calling for me to buy their fruits and fish heads.

I was barely conscious when Xiao said her farewells - the whole day seemed to pass in frames, interspersed with bouts of coughing and a thumping in the chest which seemed to shake the blood behind my eyes. The window had iced over, I was chilly, and then oppressively hot, the night passed too slowly with no hope of sleep, shapes in the room, voices from outside the window shouting in the dirty local dialect of Mandarin.

I was dreaming, but unsure of where the dreams were coming from, for I didn't appear to be asleep. I was aware that I'd begun to work at a company, perhaps in Shanghai; in fact, I had been employed as the general manager, and was enjoying the company bar, all drinks paid for by the firm. The room was dimly ochre, the girl I was dancing with seemed to lose interest and moved away. It took me a while to notice she'd stopped dancing with me, I stumbled towards the bar and slumped onto the stool. They were playing some old American classic bores on the sound system, the only Western music that they are familiar with in China, songs which are routinely wrung out for foreign visitors in the hope of making them feel at home. Nothing is more alienating.

The bartender is a black American woman with an attractive smile. I order yet another mixer, and she leans over carefully and says, It's because of your glasses, you know’. ‘What?She reaches over and takes off my dark glasses, and I see that the left lens is missing. I inspect the glasses uncomprehendingly, then slowly turn my head towards the dance floor, scanning for the lost lens.

‘It's in your breast pocket. You put it there when it fell out, you were crawling around the floor searching for it, don't you remember?’

I didn't. In the pocket is the lens: I fumble with it for a moment, fail to push it back into the frame and put both back in the pocket for a future, rather more sober operation. It occurs to me for the first time that I must look foolish, and I ask sheepishly, ‘How did I get so drunk? I don't remember ordering so many drinks’.

Triple shots. They are always triple shots here. Company pays for everything, even her. She gestures towards a slender busty girl on the other table, who I now notice is watching me. What do you do here? I'm the GM. And she cocks an eyebrow, and I qualify, the new GM. I look back at the girl at the next table who smiles, I give her a grin and a little wave, and look back at the bartender. I don't really like white girls. She looks at me funny like I'm trying to pick her up and I'm some disgustingly drunk exec guy and I realise how dumb I look - what kind of orange juice do you guys do here? And she smiles and says, the very best, and I say get me one of those.

Over my juice I recall that I have missed an appointment with a close friend, and I conceive that I have caused him some displeasure, again. I should really call him, apologise...what about that idiot I was talking to this afternoon in my apartment, talking about his lover or something, he got me a couple of drinks, some pretence of doing business. Trouble is, position like this is all face, there's no real grudge work to do, you just meet people and tell people what they should be doing, drink the company's free spirits. Classic Chinese business method. So I'm sitting there trying to force the lens back into my glasses again but my hands are all shaking, and I realise that I just can't look after myself at all. This is when it all starts becoming Shenyang again, and then no, I'm an English teacher, and I still can't take control of myself. My God, if I was this sick and totally on my own, I'd be dead. I can't buy food here, can't cook, can't recognise products or methods for cleaning the bathroom.

I'm taken to the hospital, in the back of a taxi in the cold. Outside the sun is a bright white coin in smutty clouds, a man is tugging a woman as she tries to push his arm away, she sees my face as the taxi passes her, her expression is a mixture of surprise, humiliation, and a wish to leave. I can't speak Chinese, a doctor walks me through wards as he draws on a cigarette to an untidy desk where he pulls some traditional concoction from a desk drawer. Another speaks a little English, but not enough to adequately enquire after my symptoms. I manage to get a translation of the medicine she is about to inject me with - penicillin. The bathroom facilities are no more advanced than are those at the school, I am fortunate to have worn the trousers in which I had left a wad of tissues.

I am given a handful of remedies, and prescribed a series of Di Liu, which is the local slang for 'drip feed'. Greasy nurses lead me along a dirty corridor and I am leaned on a vacant bed, my hand is swabbed with a briny solution and pierced, and a colourless liquid with unknown purpose begins to enter the veins of my arm. Someone was pulling on the tube, I managed to put together a clumsy sentence in Mandarin which equated to, 'quit messing with my dripfeed'.

In bed at home, I was still feverishly hot. Xiao's mother finds me with most of my clothes tossed out on the floor and scolds me, I am suddenly very cold and request an additional duvet. Nude beneath it, the sweat seems to bubble all over my skin, I see that blood-brown blotches have scattered themselves over my shoulders from underneath, and by the morning they have covered my skin. But it is already evening, my colleagues have invited me for dinner again after work and we sit in KFC together, Lily, Lawrence and I. Lily has taught me how Chinese women flirt, Lawrence has gone over the bodies of our more attractive female co-workers. This is the third night in a row I have ignored advice and stayed out, the restaurant seems unbearably hot and outside is death cold, and I have cancelled my adult lessons again, because after three hours straight talking my throat is beginning to give. Millet, the Tie Xi school secretary, has asked me to wait with her so we can take a taxi home, her apartment is very near mine. Her shift finishes five hours after mine, but I take the chance to rest with her near the oil heater. My adult students pass by the desk one by one, they have invited me out for dinner again but I have to refuse. Instead, Millet and I duck out to KFC, she manages an impressive dinner compared with mine. In the taxi, all the signs seem to display the same characters, on the corners are small fires, men wheel their blackened mixers of popcorn, which fall out in long pale sacks like grubby wombs.

Have I eaten the soil in Shenyang, or swallowed balls of snow? I am looking up at an enormous chimney stack, thankful to be here, in this country. A line of workers are digging a ditch at midnight, the machinery which would make the job simple out of budget. The streetlights are limey green behind willows lining the avenue, I don't know who it is I am talking to but I don't recognise the language that even I am speaking. It's because I've been lazy, or depressed - the textbooks lie sitting on the spare bed in the hotel room, but I haven't been to classes in weeks, with the illness. I can see the outlines of the Chinese characters on the poster of Wang Fei on the wall; it's illuminated by the billboard lights on the traditional Chinese medical facility across the motorway. Friends invite me for more beer, his girlfriend strokes my face in the back of the taxi. Or perhaps I am still here under this duvet, taking Di Liu which I have learned remedies a stomach ailment I don't suffer from, everything that comes out of my mouth in the shower is yellow like that dancer's bikini. Perhaps I never left the duvet, I'm not even sure I'm in China, because the sun seems to be setting over the Waitakere ranges in West Auckland where I spent my childhood, and I am crying, because it's beautiful and it's the last time I'll be watching this.

It will be Christmas soon. Christmas will be white, although from my window I cannot see outside, just the patterns of white frost swirling around my window like shoe dirt on the staffroom floor in Zhongshan school. I consider hanging a line of blinking coloured lights from the tube of my Di Liu. The nights are long and I can't leave my bed, I sleep at 6 am and wake at 4. I can't decide if I've been teaching or not. I call home and schedule a flight back to New Zealand right after Christmas. I decide that the whole trip has been a failure, with no significant progress in a language I ccouldn't hope to comprehend. My bed is a bubble of English in a shockingly dirty city of fragmented Chinese, and I seem to be part of an illness from which all the people here suffer from.

-Michael Arnold

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The loneliness of the long-distance scientist: a letter from 1979

It is difficult to be a geologist in New Zealand right now. A public that has suffered two major earthquakes in less than six months is demanding explanations for its trauma, and predictions about the future behaviour of the earth. The public demands certainty and precision - it wants a date and site for the next calamity, or else the absolute assurance that no new calamity will occur.

Unfortunately, geologists do not deal in certainty and precision. They talk of tendencies and countervailing tendencies, of possibilities and probabilities. Their sort of discourse is unfashionable, in an era accustomed to the trivial certainties of opinion polls and the sprurious pecision of google search results.

This blog tends to deal with subjects that emerge from that nebuolous area known as the humanities, rather than with the natural sciences, but I think that the historians, sociologists, archaeologists, poets and other non-scientists who hang out here will be able to empathise with the difficulties of New Zealand geologists. Haven't we all suffered, in our different ways, from the same unreasonable demands that the geologists face? I know of archaeologists who have been asked to 'prove' that the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori were the first people to reach Aotearoa by unearthing Tainui, or Aotea, or one of the other waka of migration legends; I know of English teachers who have been asked to grade their high school pupils' poems on a scale of one to ten, as though the texts were entries in some pie fair.

Exasperated by the Latinate technical terms and the thoughtful qualifications that characterise the discourse of trained geologists, thousands of Kiwis have lately put their faith in Ken 'moon man' Ring, an old-fashioned pseudo-scientist with a studied resemblance to Indiana Jones' father. Ring believes that earthquakes are caused by the movement of celestial bodies, especially his beloved moon, rather than by the action of tectonic plates. Until recently he preferred to predict events which had already occurred; now, though, he has been foolish enough to forecast that Christchurch will suffer a third major quake this coming weekend. Large numbers of Christchurchers are reportedly fleeing their city, oblivious to assurances from geologists that the chance of another big quake is minimal.

The geologists and their allies in the Skeptics Society have attempted to strike back at Ring by scheduling a lunch in one of Christchurch's oldest and tallest buildings this Saturday, in defiance of the moon man's prediction. This gesture is unlikely, though, to restore the public reputation of geology; rather than be impressed by the spectacular falsification of Ring's ideas, many laypeople are likely to ask why scientists can predict a non-event but not the real thing. The popular desire for precision and certainty will not be easily sated.
The currently awkward position of Kiwi geologists, and by extension, perhaps, of 'experts' in many other disciplines, has become associated in my mind with a letter which I recently found wedged deep in an old copy of John Fowles' massive and - these days, at least - rather unfashionable novel The Magus at Onehunga's Hard to Find Bookshop.
Like my mate Jack Ross, I'm helplessly attracted to the odds and ends which sometimes attach themselves to books: to dusty ornamental bookmarks, and scribbled marginal notes, and black and white postcards showing ugly monarchs on their front and unfinished messages on their back, and tickets for disestablished tramlines or derelict ferries, and, of course, the sort of lengthy, thoughtful letters which people exchanged in the gracious era before the invention of e mail and facebook and twitter.
I'll quote the letter I found recently, and follow my quote with some comments:
Mt John University
Observatory Lake Tekapo

11 p.m., 10th July 1979
Dear Linda,
It looks as though this is going to be one of those nights. I had to give up observing an hour ago when in ten minutes flat a thin veil of haze spread across the entire sky. Most frustrating, as I had just been watching HD 118238 (one of my pet stars) undergoing a rapid rise in brightness over the previous three hours. Obviously, thought I, it's coming out of eclipse! Whoopee!...I trotted off to my trusty calculator to examine it a little more closely, and have just reached two world-shattering conclusions:

a) I was looking at the wrong star, and
b) the reason for the apparent brightening of this fiendish impostor was that the neighbouring star which I was using as a brightness comparison was dropping in brightness; the wretched comparison is also a variable and hence utterly useless. Bang go all my early results on HD 118238 - about six hours' worth. Grr. Still, nice to have discovered a 'new' variable star, even if it wasn't the one I was after. Dammit.
Things are otherwise going very well. I arrived on Saturday afternoon...I'm quite happily established in the flat now...If I gave the impression that I was a superlatively efficient packer (please say yes) on Saturday, then it wasn't a very accurate one. The packing efficiency factor is inversely proportional to the number of vital items ommitted. This time the ommissions were:
Soap. Shampoo. Toothpaste.
Toothbrush (yea! Even the old proverbial.)
Razor. Woolly hat.
Brilliant, on my return to Christchurch I should by rights have degenerated into a smelly tramp with rotting teeth and frostbitten ears, liberally sprinkled with a suitably disreputable layer of ten-day-long bristles. Yummy. However I have allowed myself the wanton extravagance of replacing the first four items at the store, and have taken to wrapping my scarf around my ears, turban-style. It inevitably falls over my right eye as I try to look into the telescope earpiece, but it serves its purpose as an insulator - as do the whiskers as the nights go by!
Skylab fever is mounting!! At least once a day I get rung up by Radio Caroline - as if I knew what is going on - to see whether I have any Expert Advice to offer the idiot public...they don't seem to realise that this is an observatory, not a satellite tracking station. I even got a UFO report on Sunday evening., courtesy of Radio Caroline once again. Had we observed a strange orange light in the sky about 10 p.m. on Friday?

Ah, thought I. Closing time. Ashburton? Twizel? "Well, I wasn't actually here then, but have you a more detailed description of this fearsome Thing?" I asked, doing my best to sound knowledgeable, just in case it was something dreadful, like a talkback show.

"The guy who saw it said it was about six times the size of a star", (cor, struth), "crossed the sky in about three seconds, then exploded".

Whew. Only a fireball, but a spectacular one nonetheless. Probably a rock about the size of a grape. I told him so.

A few seconds disappointed silence. No little green men. Then...

"So what's the latest on Skylab? Been tracking it?" Groan.

"No, our telescopes can't move that fast. I was hoping you could tell me, the last I heard it was going to land on Timaru."

End of conversation.

I wonder if they'll evacuate the place?

5 p.m., 11 June

Must finish off, or I might get the dreaded obsolete letter disease.

I spent the rest of last night finishing The Magus - finally got to bed at 7 a.m. with that feeling of devastation which usually accompanies finishing something like that. What a book - I didn't know which way to turn. I'd better not spoil it for you in case you've not yet finished. I'd be interested to compare my revised version with your original one...I wonder if this will reach you before I get back, with all these strikes. They seem so remote here. I hope life isn't getting too fraught in Chch: I'm almost tempted to to stay here!
Andrew - I would not quote his surname, even if he gave it - wrote his letter in the winter of 1979 from the Mount John observatory, which stands near Lake Tekapo in the Southern Alps. The observatory was established as a joint venture between Canterbury University and the University of Philadelphia in 1965, and Andrew may well have been a staff member or postgraduate student from Canterbury who had been given some research time at the facility.
Andrew's time at Mount John coincided with the final days of Skylab 1, the first American satellite station. After orbitting the earth for six years and being visited by three crews, the facility began to disintegrate and re-enter the earth's atmosphere in July 1979. Some experts believed the craft would land in New Zealand, and that prospect caused both anxiety and excitement around the country. Astronomers like Andrew faced impossible demands for precise predictions of Skylab's trajectory and target.

The alarm about Skylab had a certain political context. In 1979 the Cold War was entering a new and chillier phase, as America announced plans to deploy a new generation of missiles in Europe and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, leading to fears of nuclear war. New Zealand's burgeoning anti-nuclear movement was suspicious of America's space programme, believing that it might be linked in various ways to the nation's massive military machine. Andrew might have had some sympathy for such a view, and a little more understanding of why he took so many calls about Skylab, if he knew that the United States Air Force had been operating a satellite tracking facility adjacent to the Mount John observatory since 1969.

Skylab eventually descended on Outback of Western Australia, rather than in New Zealand, in the middle of July.

It was not only Skylab which piqued Kiwi interest in the heavens in the late '70s. At the end of 1978 and beginning of 1979 a series of unidentified flying objects were seen near Kaikoura, on the northeast coast of the South Island. Perhaps because they were spotted by commercial air pilots, and not by stoned hippies or young men in anoraks, the 'Kaikoura Lights', as the UFOs came to be known, were reported around the world. Film footage of the phenomenon still provokes discussion today.

Whether they were interested in Skylab or in UFOs, or in both, the callers to Mount John observatory appeared to have little interest in or understanding of the work Andrew was trying to perform during his sojourn there. The discovery and classification of distant stars was somehow not as exciting as the observation of unclassified flying objects near to home.

Andrew's letter is full of wit and detailed description, and yet it is also in many ways an ambiguous, unsettled text. Some of the ambiguity probably derives from the mysterious - mysterious to us, anyway - nature of Andrew's relationship with his correspondent. Andrew addresses Linda in a tone that is neither formal nor intimate. He labours to entertain her, and he labours to build up a detailed portrayal of himself, in a way that a long-term boyfriend or husband or a brother might not see fit to do.

Andrew wants to impress Linda, but he seems unsure about the best way of presenting himself, and of defending the usefulness of his sojourn at Mount John. At different stages of his letter he adopts quite different poses, and draws on different sorts of rhetoric.

Andrew celebrates his isolation high in the Southern Alps, but regrets leaving shampoo and other creature comforts in Christchurch, and worries about returning to the city as a 'smelly tramp'. When he writes about 'rotting teeth' and 'frostbitten ears' he conjures images not of tramps but of mountain and polar explorers - of heroic, suffering figures like Scott and Malory and Hillary - but he is quick to mock his own lack of appetite for cold and adventure. He talks self-depreactingly about his efforts to track a minor star with the rather prosaic name HD118238, yet works hard to distinguish himself, as an expert on the heavens and their vicissitudes, from the 'idiot public'. He despises the ignorance and alarmism of the media but attempts - half-seriously? - to use a radio station to perpetrate a hoax that will, if successful, create a bout of hysteria in the little city of Timaru.

Near the end of his epistle Andrew alludes to the strike wave which was shutting public sector outfits like New Zealand Post during the winter of 1979. The late '70s and early '80s were a period of intense industrial conflictin New Zealand, as a large and well-organised trade union movement took on a Muldoon government determined to hold down wage increases. Sitting on his mountaintop, Andrew feels 'remote' from the strikers in cities like Christchurch; perhaps he seems them, like radio talkback hosts and UFOlogists, as a part of the 'idiot public' which is making his work difficult.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of Andrew's letter is his discussion of The Magus, the novel which John Fowles published to commercial success and critical controversy in 1966, and then rewrote and republished in the 1970s. Fowles' book tells the story of a young English scholar named Nicholas Urfe who makes a journey to a remote Greek island, where he spends much of his time in listless solitude. Urfe eventually meets a wealthy, worldly local who seems to possess magical powers; he becomes a sort of disciple of this man, participating in bizarre and erotic games, and eventually loses the ability to distiguish between reality and dream, reason and unreason.

Fowles' novel was dismissed as pretentious middlebrow mysticism by many critics, but it was very popular in the 1960s and '70s, when its themes seemed to resonate with the hippy counterculture. What did Andrew, who labours through most of his letter to present himself as an austere man of science, a locus of rationality amidst an 'idiot public', find to enjoy in The Magus? Did he feel that, by recommending it to the mysterious Linda, he was revealingto her another, perhaps more attractive side of his personality? And how did Andrew's letter wind up in the Onehunga Hard to Find Bookshop, tucked snugly inside Fowles' tome, almost thirty-one years later? Questions like these are unlikely, of course, to receive precise answers...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Unhealthy fantasies

When Skyler and I drove across the Australian Outback in 2009, I kept a copy of Patrick White's Voss on the dashboard of our little rented citroen. Even in the rundown paperback version I'd spotted in a Ballarat bookshop, with a thin glossless cover and almost transparent pages, White's novel felt monumental. On the rutted road to Lake Mungo it shook portentously, and seemed likely to leave a dent in our dashboard.

I picked up the big book occasionally, but never quite dared to read it. I had the sense that White's novel, which retraces the largely imaginary journey Ludwig Leichardt made to oblivion in the Australian interior early in the nineteenth century, was a sort of miniature version of the Outback, complete with its own dust storms, rutted tracks, and millions of mulga shrubs. What if I got lost inside the book? When Skyler and I discovered a mural dedicated to Voss on one of the back streets of Broken Hill, the half-abandoned, half-booming mining town which styles itself as the capital of the Outback, I was confirmed in my belief that the book had a special and perhaps magical relationship to the region it describes.

What most fascinated me about Voss, though, were the circumstances of the book's composition. In the copy of Andrew Marr's biography of White that I also picked up in Ballarat, I learned that Voss had begun life in the acute ward of a suburban Sydney hospital, where the middle-aged author was suffering the most prolonged and horrific asthmatic-bronchial illness of his whole sickly life. As White retched and gasped and coughed blood and took rivers of morphine into each arm, the pokey ward around him dissolved, and the vast silent white spaces of the centre of Australia swallowed him. The fifty-watt bulb hanging unsteadily over his bed became an unforgiving sun, the eye of the stern desert God who had abandoned his wandering creature to tribulation. White became Leichardt, suffering the agonies of thirst and loneliness and existential nihilism and blistered feet. By the time he left hospital, White had sketched the first draft of the novel which would win him the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I can't in any way compete with the grandeur of White's suffering, or indeed with the grandeur of his writing, but my own circumstances have gotten me thinking about the genesis of Voss over the past couple of weeks. A flare-up of an historic nerve injury in my left arm has left me running backwards and forwards to various doctors, and seen me spend every third day in bed, dosed up on painkillers and groggily grumpy.

The re-injury of my arm has coincided with the beginning of a new, worryingly ambitious research project based upon the trip Skyler and I made to the Tongan island of 'Eua last December. As I've followed up some interviewing I did on the island, one peculiar and poignant historical fact after another has emerged from old newspapers and archives, and the writing of a book has come to seem not only appealing but historically and morally necessary. A film-maker even wants to get involved in the whole process, which terrifies me a little.

As I lie in bed, popping opioid capsules and poring over increasingly hazy documents from the nineteenth century Pacific - the diaries and logbooks of whalers and sailors, letters from beleagured Wesleyan missionaries, extracts from the official newspaper of Tupou I, the creator of modern Tonga, parliamentary reports into the 'virtues and excesses' of the cruel 'trade in native labour' known as blackbirding - my head fills with the vastness of the Pacific and its history, and I begin to doubt the idea that I am reclining in a room in a western suburb of Auckland, rather than floating past Minerva Reef, following the seasonal wind south from Tongatapu, or throwing coconuts into Fanga'uta Lagoon beside the ancient stone monuments of Mu'a.
I don't completely regret the injury which aroused the nerves in my arms from their slumber, because it coincided with a research discovery which might prove of some significance, especially to fans of geeky 1980s sci fi films.

Almost three weeks ago Skyler and I visited Waingaro, fifteen or so kilometres to the west of Ngaruawahia, near the southern edge of the little-visited 'Limestone Country' where we had our civil union a couple of years ago. The Waingaro hot springs have been used by Maori for hundreds of years, but the commercial pool complex there is a sort of time capsule of the 'golden age' New Zealand of the 1970s and early '80s. There is a traditional Kiwi tuck shop which sells traditional and defiantly unhealthy Kiwi tucker, including such now-rare delicacies as soft K Bars; there are cold concrete changing rooms decorated by sloppily executed acrylic depictions of lakes and pine forests; there are barbeques stained pitch black by thousands of burned steaks; and there are loudspeakers mounted above the water which leak minor hits by Ray Columbus and Prince Tui Teka.

The Waingaro Pools are perhaps most famous for their slide. Unlike the tubes of Waiwera, Parakai and more salubrious pool complexes, the slide is open to the elements. It twists and turns all the way down a steep muddy paddock where sheep still graze. When the bloke manning the entrance to the hot pools asked me if I'd like to pay six dollars for the 'all-day slide experience' I promptly shelled out, thinking that every self-respecting visitor to Waingaro navigated the long pale ribbon of plastic. When I joined Skyler and a group of other thirty and forty-something idlers in a tepid bath, though, I found myself the only one wearing the bright green wristband which signified all-day access to the slide. "I think it's more for the kids" said a mother from Taranaki, who'd been telling Skyler how she and her husband had driven up the island just to visit Waingaro. "But since you've paid your six dollars, you should try it". "Go on honey" Skyler added. "I'll watch."
Under pressure from the residents of the tepid bath, I wandered up a muddy path to the little hut at the bottom of the slide. The bloke who sat there took my token and rather solemnly handed me a rectangular slice of black rubber three feet long. "For your arse, man", he explained, raising his eyebrows slightly. "Don't go down head first. Go down on your arse"
The kids seemed to love the slide: as soon as they'd touched down at the bottom they were back on the track that led to the jumping-off point twenty or thirty metres uphill. I climbed the track then hung about nervously beside a grazing sheep, studying the little boys and girls as they launched themselves, hoping for technical insights, and hoping I didn't look too much like an old pervert to their parents, who were presumably watching from the tepid baths and the black barbeques.
Finally I laid my black mat on the jet of white water and eased myself down. By the time I took the slide's first bend I was trying to separate the mat from the bottom of my togs, in the hope that it might reverse my extreme and steadily-gathering velocity. At the second bend I dislodged the mat, watching it fly away up toward a startled sheep. At the third bend I realised that it was only the traction of the thin mat which had been impeding my descent down the slide. At a fourth, particularly brutal bend I seemed for a moment to be taking an early exit from the slide, as my body rose up the side of a wall of white plastic. The bottom of my arm rode for a while on the slide's plastic edge, as I struggled, like some desperate drunk placed on a bucking bronco for the amusement of a rodeo crowd, to cling to the terrifying beast. I entered the tiny pool at the boot of the slide head-first, and felt something suspiciously like the back of a child's heel connect with my throat.
The man in the hut was unamused. "You don't go down head first, bro. You were supposed to go down on you arse. And where is your mat? You can't go down again unless you find your mat." But I wasn't too fussed about not going down again.
"How was it, honey?" Skyler asked, back at the tepid bath. She didn't seem to have moved during my whole adventure, except to take her lips up and down an orange K bar. "You looked like you were going really fast."
"I didn't expect to go down so quickly" I admitted. "The kids - "
"Bigger mass, greater velocity", said the other half of the couple from Taranaki, as he slopped lukewarm water over his hairy grey shoulders. "Basic physics." I decided to go and get changed and perhaps buy a K bar.
I had almost decided I didn't like Waingaro Hot Springs when I made my archaeological discovery. Under the awning of what looked like a disused toilet block, beside the track to the nearly-deserted caravan park at the back of pool complex, I spotted four state-of-the-art 1980s Space Invaders machines.
The machines had blank dusty screens, and no amount of tugging at levers and pounding of buttons could summoun up the old fleets of starships with their insectoid chirping and chittering and sudden pink fireballs and delicate green death rays.
The machines were dead, but their mere existence seemed evidence, for anyone willing to regress to the conspiratorial thinking of an eleven year-old living in the mid-'80s, that Waingaro Springs, far from being a run-down set of pools in a run-down corner of the North Island, is or was a place of cosmic significance.
A certain type of male of my generation will remember a movie called The Last Starfighter, in which a teenaged American - a young man who lives in a trailer rather than a house, rides a rickety bike while his peers drive hot rods, and is openly mocked bythe coolest girls - discovers that the space invaders machine at his local chippie is not some change-swallowing consolation prize for losers who can't get a date on a Saturday night, but rather a recruitment tool for a righteous alien army fighting a desperate intergalactic war. After spending a lot of change, and reaching a rare level of proficiency, the young warrior is informed of his destiny by his machine, and a UFO alights nearby to pick him up and carry him off to the stars.
After The Last Starfighter played at the Papakura Movie Theatre back in 1986 queues quickly formed for the pair of space invaders machines outside the food bar on the corner of the town's main street.
Was Waingaro Springs also once a recruiting site for the great starfleet that fought an obscure but righteous intergalatactic war back in the '80s? And were there any brave young local warriors who fought their way to the stars on these now-obsolete machines?

Monday, March 07, 2011

The confusions of Stuart McCutcheon

When the Auckland branch of the Tertiary Education Union announced plans to picket an Awards evening organised by the University of Auckland Alumni Society, some critics of the union warned that it was setting itself up for disaster. A picket would, anonymous critics claimed, be seen as 'divisive' and 'destructive', and get a cold reception from the hundreds of people gathering to honour distinguished fellow graduates like long-time Greens MP Jeneatte Fitzsimons and outstanding young scholars like the scientist Claire French.
The union has for months now been opposing McCutcheon's demand that crucial clauses relating to research rights be removed from the contract of academic staff. The disappearance of the clauses would reduce both the quantity and the quality of the research emerging from the University of Auckland, and make the place less attractive to both prospective staff and prospective students.
It seems, though, that University of Auckland alumni have considerbaly more appreciation of the importance of research and free thinking than the university's current vice-chancellor. The thirty or so union members who picketed last Friday's awards ceremony in pouring rain received a warm response from many of those who attended the awards ceremony. Hundreds of leaflets were gratefully accepted, and scores of ceremony attendees chose to wear stickers announcing their support for the Tertiary Education Union. Mayor Len Brown, who studied law at the University of Auckland before beginning his long ascent of the greasy pole of local body politics, stopped and chatted with union delegates and assured them that they had his support. Jeanette Fitzsimons and Keith Locke both stopped to talk and make their support clear.
Unfortunately, last Friday's show of support for university staff seems to have gone unrecognised by vice-chancellor McCutcheon. In a statement quoted in today's New Zealand Herald, McCutcheon presented the Tertiary Education Union as an unreasonable and unrepresentative body which was hellbent on putting valuable university funding at risk. Stuart's statement seems to me like a particularly pure example of that strange mode of behaviour Freud called 'projection'.
Skyler, who is co-President of the University of Auckland branch of the Tertiary Education Union, has fired this reply to McCutcheon's claims off to the editor of the Herald, in the hope of rectifying a few of the man's confusions.
To the editor:
Vice chancellor Stuart McCutcheon is wrong to accuse the union that represents university staff of jeopardising funding for the institution. It is McCutcheon who is creating a crisis at the university by refusing to negotiate with the union.
Keeping key conditions including academic grades, standards and criteria and research and study leave within the contract ensures that academics can do their job well, and also attracts top quality staff and PhD students.
Academics are making their stand because they know that McCutcheon's demands would decrease the quality of education at Auckland University and lead to the departure of many talented staff and students from the institution.
McCutcheon claims that eleven hundred academics at Auckland do not belong to the union, and calculates that the union therefore represents less than half of academics, but his figure includes many short-term and part-time academic staff members. The Tertiary Education Union's eight hundred and fifty members include well over half the permanent full-time academic staff at the university.
Finally, the union has never argued that research and study leave will be abolished, rather that significant changes will be made to it and the number of staff receiving it will decrease.
You can find out more about the Tertiary Education Union's defence of educational standards and union rights at this website.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The persistence of Ozymandias

My recent post about Ted Jenner's translations of Greek burial-poems stirred the ire of one commenter, who asked, presumably rhetorically, why he or she should care about 'OLD stuff'.

History may been 'bunk' to Henry Ford, and classical history, at least, may be bunk to our anonymous commenter, but participants in this year's most newsworthy event appear to have a considerable interest in the distant past. The protesters who have ejected Hosni Mubarak from office in Egypt and the rebels who have liberated the eastern half of Libya from the whimsical and ferocious Moammar Gadhafi have frequently drawn parallels between their struggles and those of oppressed groups in the medieval and classical ages.

Protesters and their supporters have repeatedly compared both Mubarak and Gadhafi to the pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt. Some cartoonists in the Arab press have depicted Mubarak as a walking mummy, who needs to be laid to rest in a deep tomb; others have grafted his pockmarked face onto the Sphinx, or onto one of the statues of the pharaohs.

A number of opponents of Mubarak and Gadhafi have alluded to Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias', which used what Keith Douglas has called 'time's wrong-way telescope' to mock the hurbis of an ancient despot:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

In recent weeks a couple of Arab bloggers have taken to calling Egypt's strongman 'Ozymandias Mubarak', and the popular South African cartoonist Zapiro has given Mubarak his own melancholy monument in the desert.

Shelley wrote his sonnet in 1818, at about the same time a huge statue of a pharaoh named Ramesses II was acquired and placed on permanent exhibition by the British Museum. By 1818 Britain had won the Napoleonic Wars and established itself as the pre-eminent power in Europe and in the world. Britain's navy dominated the high seas, and as the industrial revolution gained momentum British imperialists would get the tools - fast-action rifles, long-range accurate cannon, armoured steamships - that would enable the extension of their power up rivers like the Nile and the Yangtze and into the hearts of the world's most barbarous and profitable regions.

At a time when Britain seemed more powerful than ever before, some visitors to the empire's greatest museum were disturbed by the statue of the once-mighty Ramesses. This fragment of the ancient world might be compared to the fossils of dinosaurs and trilobites which were discovered in the nineteenth century cliffs of Dorset and patiently excavated and catalogued by gentleman scholars. Like the visage of the long-dead pharaoh, Dorset's dinosaurs were reminders of the age of the earth, and of the insecure tenure that even the mightiest creatures have on earth. Was it possible, some viewers of the statue of Ramesses II wondered, that the British Empire might one day share the fate of the ancient Egyptian civilisation the pharaohs and their monuments exemplified? And might the whole human species eventually follow the trilobites of Dorset's coast into extinction?

In a poem he also called 'Ozymandias', Shelley's friend Horace Smith made the fantasy of British decline explicit:

some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragments huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Shelley was a political and cultural radical, who would have been happy to see the power of imperial Britain broken. He looked for both poetic and political inspiration back to the 1790s, when a circle of young British writers and thinkers had declared intellectual war on their country's establishment, and offered their solidarity to the revolution unfolding in France. By 1818 the French revolution had been discredited, in many quarters, by Napoleon's dictatorship, and the dream of an English revolution seemed quixotic. Young rebels of the '90s like Wordsworth and Coleridge had become middle-aged conservatives, ready to praise the monarchy and the Church of England in verse and in prose.

Perhaps there is a trace of curiously optimistic fatalism in Shelley's 'Ozymandias'. Perhaps, unable to imagine a credible threat to the political and cultural order he opposes, Shelley comforts himself by insinuating the inevitability of that order's collapse.

Have Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gadhafi read Shelley's poem? The possibility is not as remote as it might seem: Mubarak married the daughter of a British nurse, and is reportedly something of an Anglophile; Gadhafi fancies himself as a man of letters, and has published several novels. In a speech he made in 2009, Gadhafi seemed to quote Shelley's poem, declaring himself 'leader of the Arab leaders, king of kings'. Is there a part of Gadhafi's disintegrating brain which recognises the absurdity he has become, and which puts the words of 'Ozymandias' onto his tongue?

It must have taken decades, or even centuries, for a pharaoh like Ramesses II to be forgotten. A religion built around his bloodline and a body of officially-sanctioned legends would have kept the dead monarch's name on the tongues of the descendants of his subjects. Even after the end of pharaonic rule, memories of the old order and its ways persisted. After the Roman conquest of Egypt a new syncretic religion honoured Gods of the old order like Thoth and Isis as well as new deities from the Roman and Greek world.

Today, a leader and an official culture can disappear from popular memory with unprecedented ease. Our twenty-four hour news cycle creates an obsession with the present and a forgetfulness about even the very recent past. For the last week or so of January and the first eleven days of February, Hosni Mubarak was the almost-continual focus of the global media and of the news-oriented parts of the blogosphere. When he emerged from one of his bunker-palaces to make a speech, not only his words but the movements of his facial muscles, the half-conscious flexing and twitching of his hands, and the pallor of his forehead were analysed for hours by commentators.

Since he resigned on February the 11th, though, Mubarak has been almost wholly forgotten by both the mainstream media and the blogosphere. One of the few journalists to make enquiries discovered that the ex-President is suffering a deep depression in the seclusion of his palace on the Red Sea. Ozymandias Mubarak is reportedly refusing to eat and to take medication, and has declared that he wants to die.

Is the oblivion into which Mubarak has fallen today any less total than the oblivion which Shelley's 'Ozymandias' suffers?

We might go further, and wonder whether a leader like Mubarak suffered a kind of oblivion even while he occupied the office of President. Humans have a tendency to hold what Tolstoy contemptuously called 'the Great Man theory of history' - to believe that battles are won by generals rather than by armies, and that the fate of nations is determined by Kings or Presidents rather than by more abstract forces like flows of capital or rates of production. Marx, who excelled in the analysis of abstract, erratic forces, warned against the danger of confusing systems with individuals. Capitalism and capitalists are not the same thing, he insisted; the state is not the same thing as its leader.

Circumscribed by the deal with Israel and the US his assassinated precedessor signed, dependent upon the Americans for cash and on his armed forces for muscle, beholden to the International Monetary Fund's neo-liberal prescriptions and yet unable to raise the price of bread without provoking riots, how much power did President Mubarak hold? Was he always, in a curious and rather grotesque way, a prisoner of his palaces?

This is a poem I've submitted (a little late, I think) for the next issue of the long-running Kiwi literary journal brief:

Ozymandias At His Desk (for Hosni Mubarak)

A mother writes to ask
why her son will die.
He will die because
a stone wants to be thrown,
because two hands want to clasp each other,
because a skull wants
to split: he will die

because there is no just word
in this room,
where hands sore from prayer
and applause
stack and sort paper,
laying diplomats’ letters over harvest estimates,
appeals for clemency with mispelt threats,
heretics’ confessions
under invoices for tar.

In the corridor the boy drops his bucket,
curses, picks it up again,
and hurries on his way
to slop out the royal tiger’s cage.

I want a wind to appear on the plain,
to gather force there,
the way a pretender prince
gathers an army,
to leap the capital’s walls
like an Arab stallion,
to push its way into this palace,
past the sabres of the guardhouse,
then pour down the corridors to this room
and level the tidy piles of the clerks.

The fairest order in the world
is a mess of unread papers.