Saturday, April 30, 2011

Edward gets punk'd?

Over the past few years Edward Ashby has been an indefatigable opponent of the various conspiracy theorists who claim that an ancient race of Celts - or Phoenicians, or Atlanteans, or extraterrestrials - were the first inhabitants of New Zealand.

After studying archaeology at the University of Auckland and taking part in various field surveys and digs, Edward became aware of how many apparently rational Kiwis had time for the claims of the pseudo-scholars. He also grew tired
of being accused of being a member of a 'politically correct' conspiracy designed to excise the true history of New Zealand's ancient white residents from the archaeological record. Weariness turned to alarm when Edward realised that many of the pseudo-scholars had links to racist and anti-semitic far right groups, and that his own hometown of Dargaville was a hotbed of pseudo-historial ideas.

Edward has taken part in a series of online debates with pseudo-scholars and also written a number of letters to institutions which have been duped or unknowingly used by the pseuds. He took a particular interest in the campaign to stop Dargaville museum from misappropriating a prehistoric pou and portraying it as an artefact from a fictional extraterrestrial civilisation.

Martin Doutre is perhaps the most high-profile of all the pseudo-scholars of New Zealand history. In his self-published tome Ancient Celtic New Zealand Doutre presents himself as an 'astro-archaeologist' and uses a series of inscrutable mathematical formulae to 'prove' that piles of stones he has found lying about on New Zealand hills are in fact the remains of 'open-air observatories' built by the same advanced ancient white race which supposedly raised Stonehenge and the pyramids. In a long debate with Edward and some of his other detractors a couple of years ago, Doutre outed himself as a Holocaust denier and a 9/11 'Troofer', as well as a pseudo-archaeologist.

Edward's history as a debunker of Doutre and other pseuds is well-known to his friends in the Archaeology Department of the University of Auckland, so when they wanted to pull his leg last week they knew just what to do. This poster (click to luxuriate in its details) was pinned to a noticeboard close to a departmental room Edward has been using: Edward sent me the poster, but he hasn't explained yet whether he fell for it...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

'Our' royals and theirs

Over the last year I've visited Tonga a couple of times and written occasionally about the place. When I've mentioned my interest in Tonga in conversations with fellow Kiwis, they've often responded by ridiculing that country's royal family. 'That King they have - he's a joke' and 'Those Tongan royals are parasites' are two of the more printable remarks which have come my way.

Although I don't consider myself a fervent believer in the Tongan monarchy - the institution may have helped Tongans preserve their political and economic independence in the nineteenth century, but it has surely become a serious encumbrance to most of them now - I'm always amused by the contrast between the derision Pakeha New Zealanders direct at 'foreign' monarchs like the King of Tonga and the reverence they have for the occupants of Buckingham Palace.

When I ask the Pakeha who scoff at the pretensions of Tupou V whether they favour the abolition of the British well as the Tongan monarchy I'm treated to lectures on the 'democratic' and 'responsible' nature of Britain's royals, and on the undesirability of republicanism. The good old British Queen and her family, I am told again and again, are only 'figureheads', without any political interests or power. How can anyone compare them with Tonga's royals, who have the power to sack governments and pass laws?

Nobody could argue that modern British monarchs have exercised political power in a direct, day-to-day manner. Britain's peculiar political system is the product of a drawn-out and complicated compromise, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, between its aristocrats and its rising capitalist class. Unlike the French bourgeoisie, which liquidated its local aristocracy at the end of the eighteenth century, the British capitalists decided to allow their country's old feudal class to survive at the head of the state, where they wielded symbolic rather than real power, and in various subsections of the state like the House of Lords and the military.

The Industrial Revolution and imperial expansion made Britain the world's leading capitalist power in the nineteenth century, but the symbol of British power was Queen Victoria, the matriarch of a family which had ruled the country in feudal times. That unconventional Victorian Friedrich Engels summed up the relationship between Britain's bourgeoisie and its aristocracy:

The English bourgeoisie are so deeply penetrated by a sense of social inferiority that they keep up, at their own expense, an ornamental caste of drones to represent the nation at state functions; and consider themselves honored whenever one of themselves is found worthy of admission into this select and privileged body, manufactured, after all, by themselves.

But the lack of involvement of the British monarchy in the everyday politics of Britain, and for that matter New Zealand, hides the continuing importance of the institution.

Many of the old draconian powers of the monarchy have not disappeared but rather passed into the possession of modern British politicians. British Prime Ministers have inherited from their feudal predecessors the 'royal perogative' to declare war or sign treaties without the consent of parliament. Legal scholars use the term 'crown-in-parliament' to describe the way in which the modern British parliament, and by extension modern British governments, have inherited the vast powers which Henry VIII and Charles I wielded. In Britain and in New Zealand, no written constitution exists to protect human rights from abusive governments and parliaments. When New Zealand governments decided to suspend the right of free expression during World War Two and again during the Waterfront Lockout of 1951 they needed only a couple of quick votes in parliament to get their way.

And some ancient and crucial powers are still vested directly in the monarchy. In Britain and in many of its former settler-colonies, the Queen or her representative is charged with overseeing the formation of a government after an election. Usually this process is an uncomplicated, uncontroversial matter, as the leader of party which has won the largest number of seats in parliament is invited to become Prime Minister. As the British republican blogger James Bloodworth notes, though, the monarch or her representative is free to break from established patterns:

In 1975, the Queen’s representative in Australia, Governor-General John Kerr, sacked the reforming government on the pretext of its difficulties in getting its Budget approved by the upper house. Kerr installed the Tory opposition to rule instead. The Queen, or a future King William, could do the same here amid a political crisis...The Queen, not Parliament, chooses the Prime Minister. This gives the monarchy huge power. The ruling class keeps the monarchy out of ordinary politics the better to have it in reserve for extraordinary politics.

Long before John Kerr's legal coup d'etat, the anti-democratic nature of the British monarchy had been been on show in the antipodes. Alarmed by the agitation of the Chartists and other radical groups, the British government passed the Treason Felony Act of 1848 to outlaw all expressions of sympathy for republicanism. After the passage of the Act, hundreds of opponents of the monarchy were shipped to Australia in chains. Later in the nineteenth century, the Act and similar pieces of legislation were used to criminalise Irish nationalists and other critics of the British crown in both Australia and New Zealand.

The Treason Felony Act remains on the books in Britain. In 2000, the editor of the Guardian wrote to the British Attorney-General to explain that his paper was about to launch a campaign for a referendum on the monarchy, and to ask whether the government could assure him he would not be prosecuted for his actions. No such assurance was forthcoming, and a 2003 attempt to have the Act quashed also failed. Although the Treason Felony Act is rarely used, republicans complain that its continued existence has a 'chilling effect' on freedom of speech in Britain.

The lead-up to tomorrow's royal wedding has been marked by repeated attempts to circumscribe the political rights of Britons opposed to the monarchy. Many wedding-related street parties have been scheduled in different parts of Britain, but
when the pressure group Republic tried to organise a party under the banner 'Not the Royal Wedding!' in the London suburb of Camden they were denied permission to take to the streets. Earlier this week the head of London's police force told a journalist that it was 'not appropriate' for protests to occur anywhere on London on April 29th, and that any republican placards seen anywhere near the wedding ceremony will be confiscated.

Right-wing politicians and the tabloids have lately been full of claims that the Windsor family symbolises British 'freedom' and 'democracy' and, if my conversations are any guide, a large part of the public, in New Zealand as well as the mother country, appears to have fallen for this nonsense. The Republic outfit plans to hold a street party in Red Lion Square tomorrow, and protesters are expected to defy the police and gather near Westminster Abbey during the wedding ceremony. It is these dissidents, and not the British state and its in-bred first family, who truly represent democratic values. Footnote: as a tiny gesture of solidarity, I thought I'd post the British Republican flag, which was created in the middle of the nineteenth century and has occasionally been flown in protest at royal coronations and weddings. The Republican banner incorporates the sea-green colour that was popular amongst the Levellers, the seventeenth century communist sect, and was later also used by the Chartists. Did the British Republican banner inspire the vexillologists of the Republic of Hungary?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ten anti-haiku produced in the exotic city-state of Hamilton on a cold windy Easter Tuesday

heaped red
and gold
oak leaves on the lawn
as though someone had plucked a rooster here

between raindrops
the puddle repairs itself

cypress saplings
to the right

'Hamilton people are too
it's too
tidy down here it's
for example how did those leaves get in a heap
so soon
maybe even
the wind carries a rake here bloody
tightarses - '

favourite regionalist slogan
piss in the river - poison an Aucklander!


'You're so
boorjwah -
antique shops are the museums
of the people!'
I'm saying the people have crap

green as mushed peas thin
as frost -

in the corner trying
to outstare
stuffed deer

across the largest deer's
three pool cues,
as thin
and dark
as old rifles

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Keith Douglas can tell us this Anzac Day

[This post is a sort of follow-up to last year's What Kendrick Smithyman can tell us about Anzac Day...]

Keith Douglas is easily the greatest war poet in the English language, but you won't find anyone quoting his work at the ceremonies that New Zealand and other English-speaking nations hold to remember the wars of the twentieth century. Nor will you find Douglas' work in any of the self-consciously worthy anthologies of war poetry which are sold at museum gift shops and at charity events for veterans' associations.

If they were asked to name a war poet, most members of the public, in Britain and Australia as well as New Zealand, would probably cite Rupert Brooke, the handsome young gentleman who wrote longingly of the pleasant fields of England from an overstuffed troopship, or Wilfred Owen, who yoked the imagery of modern war to the pastoral rhythms of the Romantics.

Brooke was an execrable writer; Owen was a good writer who didn't live long enough to find the right way of expressing terrible twentieth century novelties like machine guns and mustard gas. Douglas, who died at the age of only twenty-four shortly after the D Day landings in Normandy, left behind not sentimental scribblings or promising apprentice work but a set of astonishingly mature poems. Douglas' work has won critical acclaim, as well as the acclaim of other poets - Ted Hughes saw him as a model, and Geoffrey Hill, a strong candidate for this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, has written reverently of him - but it has never enjoyed a substantial popular audience.

It is not hard to see why Douglas' poetry remains unpopular with the public, and why it never gets aired on Anzac or VE Day. Where Brooke and Owen write from the perspective of the victims of war, and indeed often impersonate these victims, Douglas writes unapologetically about the experience of killing. One of Douglas' best-known poems is called 'How to Kill':

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

And look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the wave of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost...

Douglas grew up surrounded by the legends and crippled veterans of World War One, and with the expectation that he would face 'the test' of some new conflagration. At Oxford in the late '30s he combined membership of the Officer Training Corps with roles in amateur theatrical productions and appearances at poetry readings. Many of the poems Douglas wrote at Oxford look forward to the coming war. In a piece called 'Danse Macabre', Douglas imagines the bodies of the maimed and dying victims of the next war magically appearing amidst a group of elegant dancers on an Oxford stage; in another poem he mocks the snobbish, purblind aristocratic army officers he encounters, and imagines their bewildered deaths in the coming apocalypse. After World War Two finally broke out Douglas was assigned to a tank group, but when his group was sent to North Africa he found himself separated from them, and consigned to a safe desk job in Cairo. Angry at this fate, the young man spent much of his time drinking and carousing. He was soon writing home to his mentor, the pro-Hitler poet and cricket writer Edmond Blunden, to report that he had run over a native Egyptian on one of Cairo's chaotic roads. The 'worst thing' about the incident was 'the smell', Douglas jokily confided.

In a poem called 'Cairo Jag' Douglas contrasts the city, with its drinking houses and brothels and bored expatriates, with the brutally simplified world of the desert battlefields to its west:

Shall I get drunk or cut myself a piece of cake,
a pasty Syrian with a few words of English
or the Turk who says she is a princess--she dances
apparently by levitation? Or Marcelle, Parisienne
always preoccupied with her dull dead lover:
she has all the photographs and his letters
tied in a bundle and stamped Decede in mauve ink.
All this takes place in a stink of jasmin...

there are the streets dedicated to sleep
stenches and the sour smells, the sour cries
do not disturb their application to slumber
all day, scattered on the pavement like rags
afflicted with fatalism and hashish...

But by a day's travelling you reach a new world
the vegetation is of iron
dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
the metal brambles have no flowers or berries
and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
clinging to the ground, a man with no head
has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli.

Douglas eventually deserted his desk job, commandeered a truck, and drove into the desert to rejoin his old tank unit. He seems to have been an almost crazily brave soldier: one former comrade remembered how much the young officer enjoyed jumping out of his tank, running towards enemy vehicles, and lobbing a grenade or two down their turrets.

When Douglas was wounded, he used his short stay in hospital to knock off Alamein to Zem Zem, a prose account of the North African campaign which would eventually be translated into Hebrew and used as a training text by the Israeli Defence Force. Parts of Douglas' memoir have an almost celebratory quality: when he boasts, for instance, that the messages his tank group sent through its primitive intercom system 'resembled the lines of a wildly avant-garde group of poets' we are reminded of the joyous aesthetic of war promoted by Marinetti and his Italian Futurists. Douglas had enjoyed a reputation as an artist as well as a poet at Oxford, and he illustrated Alamein to Zem Zem himself.
Douglas' attitude towards war may have changed after he returned from North Africa to Britain. Literary fame had suddenly become a possibility: his work had been published in important periodicals, and TS Eliot was helping him assemble a book of his poems.

According to some commentators, Douglas was also unhappy with the idea that the spontaneous heroics he had shown in the deserts of North Africa might have been misinterpreted by his comrades and superiors. Douglas had little interest in British nationalism, or the struggle against fascism, or military discipline. He had entered the battlefield out of curiousity and a desire to test himself; once he had learnt about war and proved his courage he may not have been sure whether he wanted to fight again.

In some of the poems he wrote while he trained for the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, Douglas expresses a weariness with army life, and a frustration at not being able to give more time to literature. In a poem which recalls Rimbaud's famous boasts about his unparalleled literary genius, Douglas claims that he could establish himself as the equal of any of the great writers of the past, if only he did not face the prospect of imminent death. Douglas asks future generations to remember that 'time, time was all I lacked'.

In his last, unfinished poem, Douglas looks forward to the D Day landings with a strange mixture of dread and exultation. Using an image that recalls his Oxford days, he describes the hundreds of thousands of soldiers about to embark for Normandy as 'actors waiting in the wings of Europe'. Douglas feels like he is about to smash through a dark pane of glass; he fears that he will find a 'shadow...or wraith' on the other side. In the last lines of his poem, though, he confesses that 'There is an excitement/ In seeing our ghosts wandering'.

A couple of days after coming ashore at Normandy Douglas was moving inland with his comrades through country which had been mostly cleared of the enemy. Standing in the open air with a couple of comrades, Douglas suddenly began shaking and crying. Shortly after recovering from this uncharacteristic attack of anxiety the poet collapsed. A sliver of shrapnel from a distant explosion had pierced his heart and killed him instantly, without leaving a wound.

I thought of Keith Douglas today, after reading a post at Kiwipolitico about the raid by New Zealand troops on an insurgent base near the border of Afghanistan's Bamiyan province. The operation, which was supported by American aircraft, killed nine insurgents and eight civilians. John Key has repeatedly claimed that New Zealand troops are stationed in Bamiyan not to fight but to assist in the 'training and mentoring' of Afghan security forces. As Kiwipolitico notes, though, the recent raid was an elaborately premeditated act of revenge:

[T]he point of the exercise was threefold: to exact utu on those who killed a NZ soldier; to provide a deterrent for other such directed attacks against NZDF personnel in Bamiyan province; and to send the message to the Taliban in neighbouring Baghlan province (from where the attack on Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol was organised and carried out) that Bamiyan is off-limits. The raid was personal...the raid against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was led by the SAS in concert with US troops and air cover...

This is not the first time that Kiwi troops have been complicit in the killing of civilians in Afghanistan. During the Western invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 2001 our SAS troops were deployed as target-spotters for American bombers. It is generally estimated that at least five thousand civilians were killed by air raids during the invasion of Afghanistan; thousands more have of course died in bombing raids during the guerrilla war which has followed the invasion. New Zealand troops were also implicated in the mass execution of prisoners of war by the pro-American Northern Alliance during the invasion of Afghanistan. An SAS unit is supposed to have handed prisoners over to the Northern Alliance warlord General Dostum, who then threw them into sealed metal containers, where they soon suffocated.

It is not only in Afghanistan where New Zealand forces have been linked to human rights abuses in recent times. Kiwi troops and cops played an important role in the Australian-organised coup which removed East Timor's elected government in the middle of 2006. Anzac forces landed in Timor after weeks of increasingly violent clashes between supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. The Anzacs claimed they had arrived to bring calm, but Alkatiri claimed that John Howard's government was actually responsible for stirring up the violence. Alkatiri had long been unpopular in Canberra because of his tough stance in negotiations over disputed oil fields in the Timor Gap. Howard and Alkatiri's opponents claimed that the Prime Minister decided to resign from office in the interests of the nation shortly after the arrival of Anzac troops, but Alkatiri claimed that he signed a resignation letter only after a gun was held to his head.

In the aftermath of Alkatiri's ouster, Australian and Kiwi troops clashed repeatedly and violently with Timorese civilians. In February 2007 Australian and New Zealand troops launched a spectacular raid on a refugee camp which housed a hardcore group of supporters of Alkatiri. After a tank smashed through the camp fence, Anzac troops ran through the area, firing live ammunition. After two civilians were killed rioters took to the East Timorese capital of Dili in protest, attacking the Australian embassy and stoning vehicles driven by Aussies and Kiwis (anti-Anzac riots broke out again in August 2007). Like the recent raid in Afghanistan, the assault on the refugee camp in East Timor was an act of utu: Anzac forces had been the target darts fired from the vicinity of the camp, and they wanted to teach the residents of the place a lesson. Why is the recent raid in Afghanistan being analysed and argued about on the blogosphere, rather than in New Zealand's mass circulation media and in parliament, and why do so few Kiwis know about the allegations of human rights abuses by troops and cops operating in their name in Afghanistan and East Timor? Why doesn't our Prime Minister even admit that we are fighting a war in Afghanistan, rather than taking part in some sort of glorified training exercise?

As bizarre as it may seem, many contemporary New Zealanders simply cannot believe that their army would do anything so unpleasant as actually kill other human beings, let alone defenceless innocent human beings. Forty years ago, New Zealanders were all too aware about what their troops were doing in Vietnam. Part of the population hated the war against the Viet Cong, and took to the streets; another part vigorously defended the conflict. Nobody kidded themselves that Kiwi troops were mucking about doing 'training and mentoring' exercises with the South Vietnamese a safe distance from the war zone.

Since the Lange-led Labour government banned nuclear ships from our waters in 1985, New Zealanders have begun to perceive their country's foreign policy and its armed forces in a new and peculiar way. Despite the fact that Lange maintained relatively warm links with America, refused to close the US air base in Harewood and spy base in Blenheim, and boosted the country's military budget, many Kiwis began to talk about their country as 'the Switzerland of the South Pacific', an island of enlightened neutrality in a conflict-ridden world. The National Party soon adapted to the new mood, and endorsed the nuclear free policy. Later, both National and Labour discovered that the best way to sell a foreign military deployment to the public was to present it not as an old-fashioned armed expedition where guns got fired and people fell down dead, but as an exercise in 'peacekeeping' or 'reconstruction', or some other fine-sounding but rather vague activity.

In the twenty-first century, New Zealanders display a schizophrenic attitude to the activities of their armed forces overseas. As we were roped into the post-9/11 'War on Terror' our military was deployed in more and more locations, from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Solomons to East Timor. Partly because of the duplicity of our leaders and partly because of the delusions we have acquired since the Lange era, we refused to accept that our troops were going to war. We were happy, though, to celebrate when one of our soldiers was given a Victoria Cross for shooting a large number of people one dark night in Afghanistan. Willie Apiata could be an old-fashioned war hero and a touchy-feely peacekeeper in the space of a single newspaper editorial or politician's speech.

If New Zealanders are to have a serious discussion about their military's role in Afghanistan and other conflict zones, then they need to wake up to the reality of what Apiata and his mates do for a living. Just like Keith Douglas, the men of the SAS are killing machines. Enormous amounts of money and materiel are expended teaching them how to kill, and when the opportunity has presented itself they have killed with alactrity in Afghanistan. We need a national debate on whether Apiata and his mates should be killing Afghans or not. John Key is very keen to avoid this sort of honest argument, because he knows that he can make no credible defence of the American-led recolonisation of Afghanistan and the endless war this recolonisation has created. Key wants to hide behind waffle like 'mentoring and training' and 'peacekeeping forces' because on this issue waffle is all he has.

With their often unpleasant honesty about what soldiers do on battlefields, Keith Douglas' poems are a corrective to the tendency of politicians and bad poets to waffle about war. If only 'How to Kill' and Douglas' other great poems could be read aloud at dawn services this Anzac Day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Uncorking the bottle

The great German-Jewish poet Paul Celan once compared his texts to messages in bottles. Nobody could tell in advance, Celan insisted, whether a poem would find an understanding reader, or whether its message would be lost.

When I edited a selection of Kendrick Smithyman's previously-unseen poems last year I certainly worried that I was throwing bottled messages into a vast and indifferent sea. Smithyman published over seven hundred poems in his lifetime, and many more have emerged since his death: could anybody, I wondered, possibly want to read more? Weren't the poems already in circulation, with their notoriously dense range of references and sometimes complicated forms, enough to go on with, for a few decades at least?

I worried, as well, about the prospects of the long introduction and extensive notes I included in Private Bestiary: Selected Unpublished Poems 1944-1993. A last-minute count revealed that the book had five thousand words penned by Smithyman and eighteen thousand from the hand of Hamilton. Wasn't Smithyman garullous enough, without the addition of page upon page of commentary?

At the launch of Private Bestiary I argued, a little nervously, that the poems in the book were important because they revealed little-known facets of Smithyman's life and thought, like his traumatic experiences during World War Two and his impassioned exploration of both Polynesian history and radical politics. I went on to explain, or to attempt to explain, that the notes to the poems were not supposed to lay down drily definitive interpretations of the poems - contrary to what certain academic explicators still sometimes assume, there is no definitive interpretation of any poem - but rather to get a conversation going.

Poetry is surprisingly popular in New Zealand. Poets like James K Baxter and Hone Tuwhare are icons, and during important rituals - funerals, weddings, ANZAC Day services - Kiwis tend to use verse to express their emotions. What is in short supply in our society is not poetry, but rather talk about poetry. We receive poems with reverent or disinterested silence, instead of replying to the messages they offer with our own thoughts and reflections. Kiwis love to argue about other forms of art - they'll quarrel over a few beers about whether the latest Tarantino movie is any good, or whether The Beatles or Led Zep is the greatest band in rock 'n roll history, or whether the latest axing from Master Chef was warranted - but they tend to fall silent at the mere mention of literature. Literary critics are an endangered life form on our islands, so that even well-known authors sometimes struggle to find reviewers for their work.

I'm pleased that at least some of the bottled messages I sent out on behalf of Kendrick Smithyman last year have been discovered, opened, and read. At the launch of Private Bestiary Peter Simpson read out a long and erudite response to the book, which was soon reproduced on Beattie's Book Blog. West Auckland historian Lisa Truttman placed a short but supportive review on her own marvellously-named Timespanner blog. Justin Gregory found a copy of Private Bestiary lapping by the shore, and invited me onto National Radio.

In the last few weeks three additional responses to Private Bestiary have appeared. In a lengthy and thoughtful review posted on his blog Nae Hauf-Way - the name comes from A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle, the mock-epic poem by wayward communist and Scottish nationalist Hugh MacDiarmid - Dougal McNeil considers Smithyman's fascination with some of New Zealand's more unglamorous regions in the light of the 'anti-terror' raid on the Ureweras by paranoid police in 2007. McNeil has seen one of the first screenings of Operation 8, a documentary about the raid, and he is convinced that an encyclopaedic ignorance of the history and sociology of the Ureweras is partly to blame for the event. McNeil doubts that Smithyman would be impressed with such ignorance:

There are the telling details of throw-away ignorance, to be sure – notably here the inability of most journalists covering the case to learn Tame Iti’s name – but a deeper, structural racism and ignorance (what might be glossed, following Smithyman, as provincialism against regionalism) sustained the entire media and police fantasy of a terrorist plot in New Zealand...

Smithyman’s work reminds us of the ideological fictions which make up the imagined community “New Zealand”, of the regional specificity of so many of our struggles and campaigns, of the patchy – and often inconclusive – process of colonisation, of the presence of historical injustice pressing upon the present...

If McNeil brings out the contemporary political relevance of some of the work in Private Bestiary, then Ngaire Atmore, who runs the popular Bookie Monster website from the beautiful old spa town of Te Aroha, celebrates the range and accessibility of the book's poems:

[I]t’s all fascinating! Insights into the drudgery of Smithyman’s WW2 service, his domestic life in the 60s and 70s, even just documenting a stay in a dreary small town motel – it almost seems he wrote about everything, and in a rare (but not rarefied) voice.

Hamilton makes a point about Smithyman’s poetry being considered “radical” during his lifetime, particularly by literary editors of the day who by and large seem to have been mostly rather conservative in their choice of poetry to publish...The irony now is that it’s Smithyman’s difference in voice that makes his poetry so enjoyable to read; you can hear a person’s voice – not just a poet’s.

Atmore notes that if he were alive today Smithyman would be able to use the internet to self-publish some of his most radical work, and thereby circumvent conservative literary gate keepers. I think that Smithyman would delight in the looseness and spontaneity of blogging, and that he would also be a frighteningly prolific e mailer.

Smithyman may not have lived into the online era, but the massive Collected Poems edited by Margaret Edgcumbe and Peter Simpson is a triumph of internet-only publishing. I hope that readers introduced to Smithyman by Private Bestiary will explore some of the thousands of webpages of the Collected Poems.

Bill Direen has reviewed Private Bestiary in the latest issue of his mostly-offline journal Percutio. In recent years Direen has divided his time between France and New Zealand, and Percutio gives space to artists and writers from both continental Europe and the South Pacific. Perhaps not coincidentally, Bill's discussion of Bestiary focuses on the poem Smithyman wrote for James K Baxter, a man who tried, in his life and in his writing, to bridge the cultural and ideological divides between Maori and Pakeha:

[Discussing 'Letter About Hemi'] Hamilton cheekily asks whether Smithyman might be suggesting that Hemi (James K Baxter) and Heidegger and Rilke...are little more than "righteous prophets" who may have changed their outward manner without changing their words. Yet 'Letter About Hemi' contains no implied criticism of Baxter's mysticism or words. Smithyman writes 'I respect his gesture'. If there is modest questioning, is it not of Baxter's attempted cross-culturalism, his attempted outward transmigration among races, customs, and religious practices?

'Not many' become cultural mullatoes 'by act of will', writes Smithyman; and then: 'Much of what we act is quoting'. Indeed. And much of what we quote or adopt may be malapropism, anachronism or itself mistaken.

No matter what one thinks of Baxter's public gesture of faith and his deidentification with mainstream Anglo-Saxon culture, I have the impression, reading Hamilton's selection and his valuable notes, that Smithyman spent
his life trying to change not his outward gesture but his innermost one, manifest in these twenty-eight wonderfully honed poems.

McNeil, Atmore, and Direen have read Private Bestiary in the light cast by their own interests and tastes; by doing so, each has illuminated aspects of the book, and of Smithyman's work in general, which had remained obscure to me. Thanks for uncorking the bottle, folks.

Footnote: while we're on the subject of reviews, I should mention Lisa Samuels' take on my Titus Books comrade Jack Ross' Kingdom of Alt in the brand new online extension of Landfall. It's good to see a complex and innovative book get a lengthy and sympathetic treatment in New Zealand's most venerable literary periodical. I have a special interest in Kingdom of Alt, because I'm a character - a semi-fictional character, perhaps - in one of its stories, an exploration of conspiracy theories and literary hoaxes called 'The Purloined Letter'. More about all that in another post...

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bacon and eggs in Huntly

My recent post on the joys of breaking down in Huntly prompted some strong and strongly opposed opinions on the merits of that often-maligned town. With either pity or disdain, Paul Scott explained that my fondness for Huntly was a symptom of personal dysfunction:

there are things that are good for you, and things that are not: One doesn't drive an Integra dude, and one doesn't go any where near Huntly. Try to pull your life together

Richard Taylor, though, went to the defence of the little coal town on the Waikato:

For years I have made a point of stopping at Huntly. I used to stop for sausages tea/and or coffee, tomato and eggs. I like places such as Huntly. I like the broad streets and wide footpaths of those rural towns, the yoked mix of beauty, stupidity and desolation, history (not that History is clear or specific in my mind, more a kind of feeling of time)...

I also loved going on the Limited (the train between Wellington and Auckland - it was steam when I was young, but it changed to diesel-electric) at night and stopping for tea and sandwiches at Mercer. I know that was not liked by others. I loved it. I prefer tea rooms to pubs. There is a greater feeling of isolation sitting and pondering in a tea room or a coffee bar. It is de rigueur for me to eat alone in such simple places...

Richard sent me a copy of his poem 'Lookout', which was first published in 1998 in the fugitive and short-lived literary magazine Salt, was republished a couple of years later in the similarly short-lived political mag Third Eye, and was collected in Richard's 2007 book Conversation with a Stone. 'Lookout' includes a scene set in a Huntly tea room, and has sometimes been referred to as 'the Huntly poem' by Richard's friends and editors.

After 'Lookout' appeared in Third Eye, an irate reader wrote a condemnation of the poem's 'impenetrable' manner, and of Richard's 'bourgeois' and 'elitist' tastes in literature. Richard produced a self-defence, a mixture of autobiography and polemic, in time for the final issue of Third Eye. Denying that he had 'ever had a silver spoon in me mouth', he characterised himself as a 'graduate' of New Zealand's 'working class university', the Otahuhu Railway Workshops. It was from other workers at Otahuhu, Richard explained, that he first learned about many thinkers and writers. Recalling the working class autodidact who handed him a volume by Jean-Paul Sartre one day on the train, Richard asked whether innovative literature was really as inevitably 'impenetrable' as his critic had argued.

Richard went on to explain that he began writing poetry in the late '80s, after encountering a book called Houseboat Days by a writer named John Ashbery. In the hours after he opened the book, Richard remembered, he didn't know 'whether I was insane or whether Ashbery was insane'.

John Ashbery has been one of the great popularisers of what is sometimes called the 'abstract' mode of poetry. Ashbery once explained his poems by saying that they aimed to recreate the experience of sitting in a crowded restaurant and overhearing bits and pieces of conversations from several different tables. An excerpt from "They Dream Only of America", one of Ashbery's most famous poems, gives an idea of the difficulties and pleasures of his style:

They dream only of America
To be lost among the thirteen million pillars of grass:
"This honey is delicious
Though it burns the throat."

And hiding from darkness in barns
They can be grownups now
And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily –
The lake a lilac cube.

In his entertaining book On the Outside Looking Out: John Ahsbery's Poetry, John Shoptaw argues that Ashbery's style developed in response to the politically and sexually repressive atmopshere of McCarthy-era America. Unable to discuss straightforwardly his lifestyle and worldview, the young Ashbery fragmented his language, substitued associative thinking for conventional argument, and used what Shoptaw called 'crypt words' to hide his secrets. Shoptaw's interpretation of the first stanza of "They Dream Only of America" shows the order hidden behind the poem's apparent absurdities:

The poem was written in Paris in the summer of 1957, probably on his thirtieth birthday. That day Pierre Martory, to whom [Ashbery’s second collection] The Tennis Court Oath is dedicated, made the luminous remark, "This honey is delicious/Though it burns the throat." In the summer of 1957 Ashbery was preparing for, and doubtless dreaming of, revisiting America; he did so from the fall of 1957 to the spring of 1958. Martory himself made a first, unplanned visit to America that spring. Though they traveled separately, the little poem looks forward to a fantastic voyage and an Edenic destination.

The misrepresentations of "‘They Dream Only of America’" are homotextual. The "thirteen million pillars of grass" suggest not only Whitman’s
Leaves of Grass but the "pillar of salt" to which Lot’s wife, no pillar of the community, was reduced for looking back on the destruction of Sodom...The dismembered names of the perpetrators, "Ashbery" and "Martory," may be partially reconstructed from the line "And the murderer’s ash tray is more easily – ." The romantic secrecy of the fugitive gay lovers is parallel here to the French Resistance (Martory fought in its ranks) waiting for America’s liberation...The utopian "American dream" here fantasizes a time and a place where gay lovers could come out of their lilac cubes...

When and where is (or was or will be) the liberation? Was it when the American Ashbery arrived in Paris? Will it be when "they" arrive in America? (But Ashbery had left the United States partly for relief from its repressive political climate.) In the barns of Ashbery’s childhood in rural upstate New York? In the dandified countryside of Martory’s prewar France? It is always elsewhere, a state better dreamt-of than reached...

For Richard, who had published a couple of short stories as a young man but had then given up writing for more than a decade, Ashbery's freewheeling, defiantly anti-realist style was not only shocking but liberating. Ashbery's example gave Richard the confidence to spurn the linear narratives and arguments he had once associated with literature, and to instead record the flights and meanderings of his own mind.

I have always regarded the reference to Huntly near the end of 'Lookout' as a little gesture of cultural nationalism, or perhaps of cultural regionalism. Richard's poem visits Oxford and New York City, but descends from the towers and dreaming spires of these self-important 'cultural capitals' to a small and slightly grotty town at the bottom of the world, where the narrator enjoys not a learned philosophical or literary 'dialogue' but 'tea, poached eggs, and bacon'.

Richard was taught to idealise Britain by his Anglophile parents -'my mother said there were no baddies in England, only goodies and scones' he wrote in one poem - and developed, after discovering John Ashbery and other contemporary American poets, a fascination with Ashbery's adopted hometown of New York City. He made a long visit to New York in the '90s, but eventually decided to return to the working class Auckland suburb of Panmure, where he grew up. For all their abstraction, his poems are determinedly part of a local cultural tradition.


He threw up his black boot, and the yellow
instructions, striped by this time, descended the
resurrected mountain slopes into Good Wood and
gathered. Don Quixote was nowhere to be seen.
Nevertheless, the boot, possessed of a seemingly
endless derring—do and a fucked old poker face,
achieved great success in later life, and finally got
itself retired into a joy drum while it guarded an
ancient enquirer. What say we enter into a dialogue?
It doesn’t need to make sense. Come on. We could talk
to the stars, or write them? Could we not respirate,
or partake of a new cheese, or stop when we stop?
These quibblings thrill me. As’s so like
Brautigan’s library of unread books: something taps
out a message about bullets and an insane
artiste...anyway, all that aside, everything’s so
terrible today I feel like a one-legged ant trying to
surmount the heights of Oxford at Balliol College
trying to impress a beautiful Professoress - as if
people had sexual feelings: it would be good to talk,
but I long ago dissolved into the eyes of your sea
blue wiseness, and forgetting pre-forgathers those
clouds of recollection as the kids kick footballs and
the woman asks jolly questions. I was never at the
right time but remember the intense astonishment of
the dead, and a woman, thirty or so, crying beside
the Empire State. In Huntly I...tea, poached eggs,
and bacon. Colour. Something’s missing, but the sun
burns energetics into the bean leaves, with its
intense, staring, and nuclear joy.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Flying north

In his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women, JG Ballard describes an experiment with drugs at the end of the 1960s. Encouraged by a film camera, Ballard dropped acid in the study at the back of his semi-detached house in Shepparton; a girlfriend had pre-emptively evacuated his children, taking them to picnic beside the nearby Thames.

LSD transformed Shepparton from a rather dowdy dormitory suburb of London into a carnival of light, and Ballard soon found himself shambling happily down the road, admiring the spiralling carnations and exploding roses in his neighbours’ front yards. The day after the experiment, though, the magic spell expired, and Shepparton suddenly seemed to Ballard like a place of almost Arctic bleakness. It was as though all the colour and energy latent in the suburb had been summoned and then expended by the author’s LSD vision.

Ballard decided not to take acid again, reasoning that he should be more interested in perceiving what is wondrous and yet readily apparent than in altering the appearances of the world with drugs.

I share the attitude towards hallucinogens that Ballard settles on in The Kindness of Women. It seems to me that the world is so complicated and unpredictable that a drug like LSD could only simplify it, by converting its changing nuances into a series of images which seem, all too often, to be sourced from second-rate fantasy novels and old Pink Floyd album covers.

Over the past couple of years, though, I have been involved in an intermittent, haphazard and largely undocumented series of experiments with a drug which is, in its own modest way, vision-inducing. A series of doctors have have prescribed me tramadol, a synthetic pain killer which works in a similar manner to morphine, in response to the pain caused by an old nerve injury in my left arm.

Tramadol will never be a glamorous drug. It tends to induce, even in very small quantities, a sweaty giddiness. It cannot be taken in large quantities, lest it cause serious liver damage. It cannot be combined with large quantities of alcohol, or it begins to tinker with its user’s respiratory system. The drug pushes me to bed, but it makes me sleep very lightly; again and again, as the night wears on, I wake for a second or two, then lapse back into something resembling unconsciousness. I can sleep in this broken way for eight hours, then rise from bed convinced that I have spent the whole night wide awake. Perhaps the most interesting side effect of tramadol – perhaps the only interesting side effect of tramadol – concerns dreaming. Because it makes me sleep so lightly, tramadol gives me vivid, prolonged, and very detailed dreams. Often a dream takes the form of a narrative which is built up, detail by detail, between moments of wakefulness, and then repeated, complete with interruptions and minor variations, night after night. In the winter of 2009 I blogged about a dream that had visited me repeatedly, and posted a sort of prose poem I had made out of it. This autumn, as the weather cools, the nerves in my arm awaken, and I turn again to tramadol, I am being visited by a new dream.

The new dream has been prompted, or at least abetted, by a book which my brother and sister-in-law gave me on my most recent birthday. Perhaps noting my fondness for the beer they keep in their downstairs fridge, they gifted me a guide to New Zealand boozing holes called Pubs with Personality. The text of the book exists mainly to fill the spaces between the photos of Edwardian fake wood facades and grinning publicans and magnificently bulging beer bellies; it offers up a mixture of clichés, uninteresting trivia, and unreliable oral folklore. An entry on the Waipapakauri Hotel provides one of the text’s more diverting details, when it mentions that the establishment, which sits opposite a wide flat paddock just north of Kaitaia, was taken over and run by the Royal New Zealand Air Force during World War Two.

The paddock across the road from the Waipapakauri boozer had been promoted to an airfield, so that military craft – American Liberator bombers and transporters, mostly – bound for bases and battlefields in the central Pacific could refuel before they left Te Ika a Maui on their way north. In the 1940s not even large planes like the Liberator had the ability to make the sort of long-haul flights which are routine today; Waipapakuari was only one stepping stone on the way to Guadalcanal or New Guinea. From the runway north of Kaitaia planes might get as far as Norfolk Island or New Caledonia, before having to descend and once again refuel.

The dream begins not in Waipapakauri, but in that part of New Zealand where mountains are so large and numerous that it is possible, for a while at least, to forget the sea, and to imagine oneself at the centre of a continent, rather than at the top of a narrow isolated island.

I am sitting in a Liberator which has been converted from a bomber to a mere transport plane, a mule of the skies, with its tail guns replaced by tail lights, and its fuselage widened, and its holding bay loaded with some cargo more precious than bombs – shitpaper and bottled milk and vials of morphine for the field hospital at Guadalcanal, perhaps, or love letters licked and perfumed by the fiances and widows-in-waiting of Christchurch and Nightcaps and Invercargill.

The orange light from a modest control tower winks discreetly through the morning’s mist and sleet and light snow. I am sitting in the cockpit of the Liberator, but my hands fidget with the corners of a map, rather than with the levers and buttons of a control panel. I have a cigarette, burnt down almost to its end, in my mouth, and an uncapped bottle of whiskey in my lap. My companion, whose name I do not know, or else knew and have forgotten, has his hands on what looks implausibly like the steering wheel of a car. His moustache twitches, as he checks the gyroscope, then pulls at some obscure lever, then says something I cannot hear over the excitement of the revving engines.

As we climb through the storm that has – how do I know this? – grounded us for days, I decide that the weather, like an aircraft, is a mechanical contraption, which might be set in motion by a whim or order, but is nevertheless subject to its own laws and limitations, and liable to malfunction at the least convenient times.

Now we are in the sunlight, above the fake snow-drifts and glaciers of the clouds, and moving improbably quickly. The clouds melt away as we cross the Cook Strait. After the shoals of islands in the Malborough Sounds Kapiti looks odd on its own, like a huge black whale which has gotten separated from its companions and surfaced, in confusion, close to the coast.

I can’t resist reminding my companion, who is resetting his thick rubber goggles on his high forehead, that Kapiti Island is the last remnant of the ancient land bridge between the North and South sections of our country. “We don’t need a bridge anymore." His voice is low, but the engine is now working silently, and I have no difficulty in hearing him. “We’ve got the sky.”

For a few minutes we exchange the whiskey bottle like small talk. We pass over Auckland, which I decide to consider a land bridge between the Waikato and Northland, rather than as anything so pointlessly temporary as a city.

The strip at Waipapakauri is filled with neat rows of parked planes: converted and unconverted Liberators, smaller active service craft like Corsairs, and a few of the ridiculous Tiger Moth biplanes New Zealand’s little air force still uses to train recruits. Beside the pub someone has raised four flagpoles made from the trunks of middle-aged puriri; I can see the stumps of amputated branches.

Between the stars and stripes, the Union Jack, and New Zealand’s sadly derivative national flag, a plain white banner crumples and uncrumples in the northbound wind. “Has someone hung their bedsheet up from that pole to dry?” I ask my co-pilot, whose name is suddenly O’Shannessy, as we walk towards the hotel. “I don’t know what you’re getting at” he replies, without pausing, or even looking at me.

The bar is empty except for a group of American pilots, resplendent in their beige dress uniform, who beckon us to their table as soon as we have bought our beers. We drink together silently, until one of the Americans suddenly shouts “No rifles inside the hotel!”

Half a dozen figures – two teenagers and four bulging, balding men – stand rather uncertainly on the threshold of the pub. “Dallies and Maoris” another of the Americans mutters. “Locals. Amateurs. Too raw or too rotten for the draft. Those rifles are broomsticks. They’ve got nothing real to drill with.” He turns towards me, and raises his voice. “Your country is fucked, mate. Fucked.” He turns toward the entranceway. “Are you boys going to fly to Midway on those broomsticks and tackle the Japs?’ One of the older men in the doorway turns his stick in a slow circle then holds it above his head, as though it is a taiaha and he is about to perform a war dance. “I’ll stick it up your arse, if you keep talking”, he drawls, in his Slavic-Maori accent.

O’Shannessy and I have finished our beers; we start, without discussion, for the door. The Home Guardsman holds his broomstick-taiaha in front of me, blocking my way out to the sunlight and the field of revving engines. “The branch is broken” he tells me, with a look of improbable solemnity. I don’t understand. “The branch is broken, the bough is broken. On the tree, the pohutukawa, at Reinga. Too many spirits have used it. Too many wars, too many taua. Too much sickness, smallpox, tuberculosis. The Spanish Lady too. Too many leaning on the branch, letting themselves down, on the way to Spirits Bay, to the underworld. To Hawai’iki. The branch is broken.”

I still don’t understand, but decide that a few words might help clear my way. “That’s interesting. What must one do, without the branch?” I ask. “Jump” he replies quickly, shuffling out of my way. "You have to jump. There’s no other way to Hawai’iki now.”

Outside it is suddenly hot. The ground crew, who are dressed in nothing but sandals and khaki shorts – O’Shannessy mutters something about “Chinese coolies” – have finished refuelling our plane.

We climb quickly. On Houhora harbour the launches are as still as buoys, and I remind myself that in a time of war there can be no petrol rations for pleasure craft. The low brown humps of Mount Camel on the northern side of the harbour seem ridiculous, pretentious, after the peaks and glaciers of the south.

“I’d like to see the tree” I say suddenly to O’Shannessy, who is dragging us higher and higher. “The pohutukawa, at Cape Reinga. Can we drop altitude for a while?”

I can remember the story now, the story I was told at school, will be told at school, decades in the future, in the 1980s, when the Maori renaissance is entering the institutions, when assimilationism has finally been abandoned as state policy, when the principal of Drury Primary School accedes to the demands of a new curriculum by dropping into our classroom just before lunch break and teaching us to sing the national anthem in atrocious Maori, or by rambling in his familiar, avuncular way about

some Maori myth or another, the Maoris are a very superstitious people they believe in all sorts of peculiar things for instance when their bodies die their ghosts come out it’s a normal thing for them just like the Hindoos boys and girls I was in India during the war and the Hindoos believe it too the ghost climbs out of the body like say the way a diver climbs out of his diving suit not a soul not a Christian soul no and the ghost doesn’t go to heaven the ghost goes to the Cape to Cape Reinga it swings off the old pohutukawa there on its way to Hawaii now girls and boys how many of you have gone Caping Lois and I did one Christmas in the caravan the road is awful gravel and potholes and hardly any pubs and as for Hawaii it’s too expensive for a school principal let alone the average Maori I suppose they can always wait ‘til they die it’s good to have something to look forward to

“We can’t do it.” O’Shannessy’s moustache twitches irritably. “Have to conserve fuel. We’ve been allotted just enough for the mission.”

Once again, I don’t understand. “What mission? Where are we headed?” My mind shuffles the possibilities – Norfolk Island, a place so small it gets lost after dark, when housewives hang black sheets on windows for fear of Japanese bombers; New Caledonia, a higher, rockier version of Northland, inexplicably populated by Melanesians and French; Tongatapu, where the Americans poured thousands of tonnes of cement over fields of taro and yam, and employed the displaced farmers as airport porters and cleaners… “Hawai’iki. We’re going to Hawai’iki. I wish you’d read the command sheet.” O’Shannessy scratches his upper lip in an effort to hide or emphasise his annoyance. “Be there soon, anyhow.”

I look down, and see a long ragged line of surf where the Tasman Sea collides with the Pacific Ocean north of Cape Reinga. North East Island floats in the distance, as flat and bleak as the deck of an aircraft carrier.

The idea, I realise, makes a good deal of sense. The branch of the old tree at Reinga has evidently broken; even if it had not broken, some more efficient method of travelling to the ancestral homeland – to the ancient life, the afterlife – would surely be required. And wouldn't it be much more comfortable to jump the distance in a converted Liberator, rather than having to shimmy down a pohutukawa branch, then float over the rough water off Reinga towards the passage that leads to Hawai’iki? Jump, that is the sensible thing to do. “Who are we carrying, then, to Hawai’iki?” I ask O’Shanessy.“Who have we got in the back?” The moustache twitches under his ring finger. “Just ourselves. We bring ourselves. I wish you’d read the command sheet.”

Now I remember, or think I remember, snow and sleet falling on a prone aeroplane, and mountains rising on every side of the wreck, and the glacier as sharp as a reef, and the avalanche that came like a huge wave, and the cave we dug with bare hands in the snow it left, and the matches that had to be struck twenty, thirty times before they gave a few seconds’ light, and the intricate ugliness of O’Shanessy’s face, the cuts and the bruises and the moustache turned white and the frostbite blooming like leprosy, and the stiff feeling of the body when I hugged it, and the way my toes, my fingers seemed to disappear, one by one, to melt, as I lay quietly in the dark…

“Here it is.” O’Shannessy is dropping altitude. “On your right.” I had imagined a high forested island, with its peaks hidden by mist or cloud, but the ground below us is flat, and covered with intricately divided cultivations. I can see a lagoon, so calm it might be a lake, and a double-hulled waka tied to a stone wharf by three lengths of rope.

“Potatoes, yams. Taro in the irrigation ditches. Stone tools and no fertilisers, but they pull in a good harvest. If the Japs get hungry enough they might raid this place.” A man bends over double, does something with his hands in the dirt, scrambles a couple of yards, bends lower. Coconut palms shake their heads affirmatively, as we drop lower, and the dark blur on our right wing turns back into a propeller.

“Aren’t we going to land somewhere?” I ask, more in puzzlement than fear.

O’Shannessy laughs for the first time. “How can I land? There are no runways here, there's nowhere to land. We’re going to crash. Mission accomplished.”

For a moment or two the coconut palms seem to grow up towards us.

[Footnote: I've realised that Kendrick Smithyman had a hand in this dream. Can dreams be guilty of plagiarism?]

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Whitianga swastika

When I was in my early teens I was shocked to come across an old hardcover book with a spine decorated by swastikas. The book was a collection of Rudyard Kipling's short stories, and I wondered whether Kipling, whom I remembered as the author of The Jungle Book, the Bible of the Papakura Cubs troop, could really have been a Nazi.

I had grown up with movies like The Guns of Navarone, with solemn picture books about World War Two, and with comics with names like Battle Picture Weekly, so I associated swastikas with bad guys - they were known variously as Krauts, Jerries, and the Hun, but they were always bad guys - who jumped out of aeroplanes and foxholes shouting 'Heil Hitler' and died screaming 'Achtung!' in a hail of British or American bullets.

I've since learned that the swastika is an ancient and ubiquitous symbol, that it has been used by devotees of Buddhism and Jainism, and that it was a relatively popular decorative motif in books and magazines before World War Two. The volume of Kipling's stories I spotted was almost certainly produced before the war.

I've never been a fan of the view, advocated by the likes of Jung and Levi-Strauss, that certain symbols have a fixed, inherent meaning, and affect all humans the same way. Nevertheless, I can't help but associate the swastika, whatever the context in which I find it, with Hitler, with Nazism, and with evil. There seems to be something inherently malign about the symbol, especially when it is presented in its 'slanting' rather than 'static' form. The bent arms of the swastika seem violently deformed and sharp-edged, and when the symbol is slanted it gains a disturbing feeling of motion. It might be a rotor of some infernal engine, or the strange axle of a grotesque war machine rolling towards its targets.

I'd never seen a swastika on display in New Zealand outside of a museum, so I was rather surprised to spot a large version of the infamous symbol standing beside a quiet road on the southern side of the Whitianga harbour in the eastern Coromandel last weekend.

The 'Whitianga swastika' stood four or five feet tall, and had obviously been sculpted and painted with care. The red, light blue, and yellow colours of the object were hardly designed to recall Nazi Germany. Checking with the redoubtable Flags of the World website, I see that red, yellow, and blue are used extensively with some Buddhist banners. On the other hand, the slant of the Whitianga swastika differentiates it from the Buddhist version of the symbol, and reminds us of the Nazis.

Can anybody offer an interpretation of this strange symbol?

Monday, April 04, 2011

Breaking down in Huntly, and related delights

I have to apologise for the lack of action on this blog over the past few days, and for the backlog of unread messages in my e mail account. Skyler and I have been away from civilisation, and our return has not been hastened by a couple of incidents. First our 1994 Honda Integra broke down beside the old cemetery on the northern outskirts of Huntly; later, after our vehicle was revived, I locked our keys inside it, leaving us marooned on the drizzly Hauraki Plains.

I'm wondering whether I was subconsciously trying to extend our stay on the Plains, which have become, despite or because of the fact of their unpopularity with most tourists, one of my favourite pieces of New Zealand. I certainly didn't feel in any great panic, as I wandered away through the mist to search for some discarded fence-wire with which to jammy open our door. Skyler was less enthusiastic about the prospect of an indefinite stay amidst the sodden dairy farms, torpid rivers and unvisited wetlands reserves of the Plains, and summouned a mechanic from the nearby town of Ngatea with her cellphone. I didn't feel any great worry, either, when our ageing machine staged its mutiny outside Huntly, and we had to pull onto the strip of gravel and weeds which separates the incorrigible traffic of State Highway One from the broad deserted Waikato River. I decided that we must have run out of petrol - my complete innocence of mechanical matters precludes me from making any other diagnosis, when car engines suddenly stop working - and headed for the station at the other end of Huntly. Walking through the beginnings of a rainshower in the dusk, with diesel fumes and smoke from the coal power station across the river in my nostrils, I pitied the occupants of the flash vehicles which rushed past me on their way towards Auckland.

I was walking on hollow and hallowed ground, over the winding coal shafts which miners dug a hundred years ago, and beside a river had once carried scores of waka at a time, as well as the ironclads of an invading British army and the paddlesteamers of the early twentieth century. I was walking towards the site of the Huntly riot of 1932, when the people of the town laid siege to the mining company's store and sent shivers up the spines of the bourgeoisie of Auckland, who believed that a 'red army' might be preparing to march on their city from the coalfields of the lower Waikato.

As I pressed on into Huntly I noted, with considerable satisfaction, that there was a liquor store and a pub between me and the gas station.

Further away through the dusk was Taupiri, the sacred mountain of the Tainui people, the resting place of Princess Te Puea and Tawhiao and other heroes of the anti-colonial cause, and the site of legendary Labour Party leader Harry Holland's dramatic and perhaps symbolic death at the beginning of the '30s. Did the Aucklanders floating past me in their SUVs, thinking about the TV dinners they'd eat when they got home to Howick or Takapuna and the facebook gossip they might have missed during their sojourns from civilisation, have any inkling of the delights and insights they might be missing, because they hadn't broken down in the little town of Huntly? I wouldn't mind breaking down there again.