Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Cricket, peanuts, and right-wing politics

The recent post here about Rodney Hogg prompted some interesting comments box reflections on the often difficult relationship between cricketers and politics.

Hoggy may regret his recent intervention in Australian political discourse, but up in Queensland his former team mate Carl Rackemann is busy turning himself into a politician. Nicknamed 'Big Carl' by his fans, Rackemann played twelve tests and fifty-two one day internationals for Australia in the 1980s and '90s, before following family tradition and setting up as a peanut farmer in the South Burnett region.

Last September Rackemann announced that he would be standing as a candidate for the Katter Australian Party in the 2012 election to Queensland's state parliament. As its name suggests, Big Carl's party is led by Bob Katter, the long-time federal MP for the North Queensland seat of Kennedy. Katter is fond of wearing a ten gallon hat, and political analyst David Penbarthy has noted his 'strange, Alabama-inspired manner of speech'. Katter's politics are a curious mixture of libertarianism, social conservatism, and Keynesianism. He rails against 'government interference' in the lives of 'ordinary Australians', denouncing environmental laws in particular, but believes that the state should reimpose heavy tariffs on trade goods from Asia, subsidise farmers, and ban 'immoral' behaviour.

Katter's party has been described as 'One Nation with a hat', and it has been attempting to appeal to the small farmers and small town working class voters who supported Pauline Hanson in the 1990s. Many of these voters blame the decline of small town industries and falling prices for agricultural products on the globalisation of the Australian economy and the depredations of Asian capitalists. They may be alienated by the Liberal-National coalition's embrace of globalisation, but they are also hostile to the social liberalism of the Labor and Green parties.

Katter can appeal just as crudely as Hanson to the prejudices of Australians. In a 1996 speech he accused unnamed 'slanty-eyed ideologues' of trying to impose 'political correctness' on his country; more recently he called for the construction of one hundred new military vessels to patrol the waters around Australia and hunt down would-be refugees.

In his recent interviews with the media, Carl Rackemann has explained that he is a third-generation farmer in South Burnett, and has claimed that this firm grounding in the region will help him to perform well if he gets to parliament. What Big Carl hasn't mentioned is that South Burnett is perhaps the most reactionary part of Australia, and that members of the extended Rackemann family have been closely involved in the febrile, anti-democratic politics of the place.

In the late nineteenth century the South Burnett area was a part of the blackbirding industry, as Melanesians abductees landed in ports like Mackay and Brisbane were purchased and put to work on cattle farms and sugar plantations. As Queensland's slave-driven economy took off in the 1870s and '80s, the state earned the nickname 'the second Louisiana', and attracted emigrants from the defeated Confederate States of America. Germans also began to arrive in numbers, and in 1884 George Hiedrich Rackemann led a large family group off the docks in Brisbane.

In the area around the South Burnett town of Kingaroy, the Rackemanns helped establish a peanut industry in the 1920s. When the Great Depression struck Australia's rural economy, depriving farmers of export markets and pushing them into debt, many of the people of South Burnett turned to the ideology of the far right for answers. Hundreds joined the Douglas Credit Party, which blamed the Depression on a conspiracy by Jewish bankers, and warned of the dangers of a takeover of Australia by communists.

In August 1939 thirty-seven armed supporters of the Douglas Credit Party stormed the Queensland parliament in Brisbane, and took the state's Labor MPs hostage. The rebels, who surrendered after a short siege, included Charles and Raymond Rackemann, peanut farmers from South Burnett. The Douglas Credit Party petered out in the early 1940s, but later that decade many of its activists formed the League of Rights, which was for decades Australia's largest explicitly anti-semitic organisation. With its claims that Jews, bankers, Aboriginals, and trade unionists were plotting to ruin white farmers and nationalise their land, the League played on old financial and racial anxieties.

One of the League of Rights' admirers was Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who was MP for Nanango, a seat that includes parts of South Burnett, for forty years, and Premier of Queensland for eighteen years. As Premier, Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency to allow the passage of the Springbok rugby team through Queensland, banned trade union pickets, and regularly accused the United Nations of plotting to conquer Australia. Bjelke-Petersen may have repressed the left and trade unions during his long reign as Premier, but he was consistently supportive of far right political organisations. He was happy to speak at League of Rights events, and his paranoid denunciations of communism and the United Nations encouraged the formation of ultra-right outfits like the Progress Party, which contested Queensland's 1980 election, and the Confederate Action Party, which grew in strength in the 1980s before falling apart in the early '90s. Paul Rackemann contested the Capricornia seat in the 1980 election for the Progress Party, and was a founding member of the Confederate Action Party. In his speeches and communications to the media, Rackemann claimed that he had been persecuted on account of his German ancestry, denounced the Australian banking system as the tool of a sinister cabal of conspirators, and complained that Queenslanders were becoming 'serfs'.

In the 1990s another member of the Rackemann clan became prominent in far right circles. After becoming interested in German history because of his family's links to the country, Peter Rackemann decided that the Holocaust had never happened, and that Hitler's regime had been unfairly maligned by historians. Rackemann became an activist for the Adelaide Institute, the organisation led by Frederick Toben, one of the world's most notorious Holocaust deniers and Hitlerians. In 1999 Toben was imprisoned for nine months in Germany for denying the Holocaust, and in 2002 the Federal Court of Australia found the Adeliade Institute guilty of 'vilifying Jewish people', and demanded the removal of hateful messages and images from its website. Peter Rackemann remains one of the key members of the Institute, and the group's website describes him as a man 'who is willing to die' in the struggle to clear Hitler's name. In the January 2007 issue of the Adelaide Institute's newsletter Toben celebrated the involvement of Peter Rackemann's father in the 'pineapple rebellion' of 1939.

Carl Rackemann will be trying to win Joh Bjelke-Petersen's old seat of Nanango in the upcoming Queensland federal election. We would be unwise to conclude, without the help of evidence, that Rackemann has the same politics as some of his relatives, or that he aims to perpetuate the legacy of Bjelke-Petersen and the League of Rights, but there is surely something disingenuous about his claims that his family history and his South Burnett upbringing give him an affinity with democracy.

[Posted By Maps/Scott]

Friday, January 27, 2012

Laughing at Hoggy

When I saw the name Rodney Hogg in a news headline yesterday, something stirred in the reptilian antechamber to my brain, that place where obsolete information and primordial memories are stored.

Hogg is in trouble after announcing on twitter that he had raised the Aussie flag to celebrate Australia Day, and then written 'Allah is a shit' on it, to make sure that 'it would offend Muslims'. After both Muslims and non-Muslims took offence, Hogg got himself in worse strife by insisting that his remark was an attempt at 'Aussie humour'.

Hogg nowadays apparently makes a living as an after dinner speaker, but back in the summer of 1982/83, when I was staying in Victoria and being introduced by relatives there to the great game of cricket, he opened the Australian bowling attack alongside Dennis Lillee.

For me, and for the Kiwi batsmen who had to face him that summer, Lillee was a scary guy. With his mean smile, his thick and inflexible moustache, and the gold crucifix which dangled over his hairy chest, Lillee resembled one of Al Pacino's sidekicks in Scarface or Carlito's Way. His run-up seemed endless, until he finally reached the bowling crease and used a high, dramatic action to send the ball jagging out of the pitch and into the ribs of John Wright or Bruce Edgar. My Aussie relatives were a jingoistic lot, but even some of them were hostile to Lillee. I remember an elderly Aunt calling the great fast bowler a "thug", and then recalling how he had kicked Javed Miandad in 1981, after the unfortunate Pakistani batsman got in his way while taking a run. An enraged Miandad started to swing his bat at Lillee, as if it were a club. Undeterred by his lack of weaponry, Lillee grinned and put his dukes up, and it was only the intervention of an umpire which stopped the scrap. I was too cowed by Lillee to express open animosity towards him, even from the apparent safety of the living room in my grandmother's house, where I would sit watching day after day of cricket. I did, however, enjoy mocking Rodney Hogg, a bowler who had all of Lillee's aggression but none of his gravitas. Where Lillee was tall and tanned with flowing dark hair, 'Hoggy' was squat and pink-skinned, with a ridiculous crop of light ginger hair. Whenever Hogg was irritated - and he was irritated often - his skin would become pinker still, and his sunburnt ears would seem to swell. After Lance Cairns hit him for successive sixes, during a legendary innings in the second final of 1982/83 World Series Cup, Hogg was so full of colour that he resembled an enormous lobster. If Lillee's anger was terrifying, Hogg's was amusing.

Hogg's most famous clash with a bastman is featured in Fire in Babylon, the acclaimed 2010 documentary about the politically motivated, all-conquering West Indian cricket team of the late 1970s and '80s. During the Windies' 1979/80 tour of Australia, Hogg decided to try to transfer their star batsman Viv Richards from the cricket field to hospital. With his Rastafarian wrist bands, his super-aggressive batting style, and his refusal to bring any protective gear except a floppy cap and a piece of chewing gum to the crease, Richards was, in the opinion of Hogg and his Aussie team mates, a cheeky darkie overdue for a fall. Hogg began to pepper Richards with bouncers, and in the second test of the series he got a ball to fly off a dodgy Melbourne pitch into Richards' face, which was, as usual, unprotected by a helmet. Richards took the blow on the mouth, straightened up and faced Hogg, and spat a bloody tooth onto the pitch. Hogg returned to his mark and, with a massive boozed-up crowd chanting his name, ran in and bowled another bouncer at Richards. Instead of stepping aside or ducking the delivery, the great batsman hooked it into the stand for six. As Hoggy stood in the middle of the pitch and watched the ball disappear, he seemed to get pinker by the second. Richards continued smashing Hogg, until the bowler limped off the Melbourne Cricket Ground with figures off none for fifty-nine from six overs and a ripped muscle. He didn't play test cricket again for a year.

Hogg liked to serve up bouncers, but when he batted he struggled to cope with the inevitable retaliation from opposing fast bowlers. Richard Hadlee was able to bowl bouncers without varying his action or expending any extra effort, and unlike Lillee and Hogg he chose to use the delivery only sparingly. Hadlee's subtle approach to the bouncer made him especially dangerous, and in the middle of that long hot summer of 1982/83 he struck Hogg, who was not wearing a helmet, on the side of the head. As blood poured out of one of his ridiculous swollen ears and the Aussie commentators fulminated hypocritically about dangerous bowling, Hogg was escorted from the field.

After being sconed by Hadlee, Hoggy the batsman seemed preoccupied with spotting and avoiding bouncers. Sometimes he even treated yorkers - balls aimed at the sandshoes rather than the head - as if they were bouncers, as this bizarre dismissal to Viv Richards' team mate Michael Holding shows:

Retirement seems to change the personalities of some cricketers - who would have guessed that Ian Chappell, the ruthless Aussie captain who threw Lillee at cowering enemies during the 1970s, would become a critic, on humanitarian grounds, of the Howard government's treatment of refugees, or that Chris Lewis, the teetotalling English allrounder, would turn into a drug smuggler? - but it doesn't appear to have changed Hogg. He was buffoon on the field thirty years ago, and he's a buffoon off the field now. Keep the laughs coming, Hoggy.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tapu, pigs, and power: talking about Tongan Ark

[When Paul Janman previewed his Tongan Ark in the Auckland Film Archive's cramped theatre before Christmas, the audience consisted mostly of Tongan intellectuals and members of the New Zealand film industry. I was keen to show the Ark to a few of my literary mates, so I coaxed Paul around to my place, where he rigged up a giant screen on the lounge room wall. After the last reel I caught a few members of the audience on tape, as they reached for beers and steaks and discussed some of the ideas in Paul's film. Here's a transcript...]

Ted Jenner: Could you tell me more, Paul, about the background to the scenes of rioting and streetfighting in your film? The burning and the looting...

Paul Janman: I shot that footage on the 16th of November 2006, during the riot which destroyed much of downtown Nuku'alofa. The riot began as a peaceful demonstration for greater democracy in Tonga. Commoners, who make up almost all of the population of the country, were tired of seeing nobles dominating parliament, and the king choosing the country's Prime Minister. Pro-democracy politicians like 'Akilisi Pohiva were demanding the reform of the constitution, so that commoners elected the majority of seats in parliament, and so that the king became a merely symbolic leader...

The Tongan monarchy, rather like the Thai monarchy, has traditionally been a symbol of independence from the West. It was created, in its modern form, partly because Tongans realised, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that if they did not have a strong central government then they would be colonised. Many Tongans consider that the monarchy saved them from losing their land and their culture to Europeans. But the institution has now, in the eyes of many, become a problem. The royal family and the nobles are often accused of corruption - they are particularly notorious for using their control of the state to get rich running monopolistic and inefficient businesses.

The 2006 protest may have begun peacefully, but it turned into a sort of violent party. The protesters stole all the liquor from the duty free shops and expatriates' clubs around Nukua'lofa. And once some of the liquor had been drunk, someone had the bright idea of burning the town down... Scott: But the destruction wasn't indiscriminate, was it? Certain businesses were targeted - those associated with the royal family, and also those owned by Chinese...

Paul: And then, funnily enough, the Chinese government stepped in and funded the reconstruction of central Nuku'alofa! There are building sites full of Chinese workmen. China is making a big effort to strengthen economic ties with South Pacific nations, and I notice that the rebuilding programme isn't an act of charity - it's actually a sort of loan to the Tongan government...how Tonga will be able to repay the debt I don't know -

Jack Ross: In a sense you can't win, can you? You topple a traditional oligarchy, a homegrown oligarchy, and then you get an international oligarchy, and what chance do you have of influencing them, when you're a small country so far from head office? Once you've got the Coca Cola company or its equivalent calling the shots, it's very hard to influence them.

Scott: I do think that the system which has existed in Tonga for the last century and a half - the system centred on the modern monarchy - has survived for so long because it has some positive qualities. The constitution created by the first modern Tongan king prevented the sale of land to foreigners and guaranteed each male citizen a livelihood. King Tupou the first was trying to find a way to balance Western modernity and Tongan tradition. He had travelled to Australia and seen the poverty of the working class there, and he knew about the dispossession of the Waikato people in New Zealand. And I think that Futa Helu, in a way, tried to perform the same balancing act when he built up 'Atenisi University. He wanted to fuse Western and Polynesian ideas. He wanted a marriage of equals.

Paul: Futa was often referred to as the alternative king of Tonga. That gives you an idea of the mana he had in Tongan society. He was in some ways more respected than the real king. He was penniless for most of his life, like Socrates, but he had a subterranean influence on Tongans. People would attack him in public but seek his advice in private. The royal family sometimes sought his advice when it was planning public events like weddings or coronations, because he had such a profound knowledge of Tongan culture, Tongan genealogy, Tongan etiquette. 'Atenisi was at times persecuted by the government, but it was never shut down, because the king knew that it had a level of public support - he knew that a thousand people would descend on the campus and protest... The present king of Tonga is a very educated man, an even more educated man than his father - he went to exclusive schools, he knows several European languages, he's very cosmopolitan - and he gets bored in Tonga. He used to send a black London taxicab down to Futa's house -the king likes those big black cabs because you can wear a sword and travel comfortably in them - and the car would bring Futa up to one of the royal residences. The king and Futa would drink all night, then the big black cab would head back to 'Atenisi, and Futa would roll out...
Scott: Futa was quite a carpenter, wasn't he? The title of your film alludes to the fact that he quite literally built 'Atenisi himself, after travelling to 'Eua and harvesting some trees -

Echo Zena-Janman: Not only did Futa build the school - he built the ground the school stands on. In the early '60s it was swamp, and so Futa and his followers had to lay shells and gravel, before they could build...the ground around the school is still swampy, and certain buildings - the library, for instance - seem almost encircled by water. That's not good for the books, of course...

Richard Taylor: I liked how laidback Futa and the other educators at 'Atenisi seemed in the film. They seemed able to laugh at anything...

Paul: Futa was very laidback. He got Harvard-trained classicists to work for a bag of taro a week. He had a laidback charm. He wasn't interested, for a long time, in keeping records or having curricula. He could be a fatalist. Sometimes he seemed to accept that the school he had established would die. He had a long view of history - he knew, like his hero Heraclitus, that nothing was eternal -

Ted: But Heraclitus isn't necessarily a fatalist. Heraclitus emphasised renewal as well as destruction -

Paul: In a sense 'Atenisi has perpetuated itself, has renewed itself, by sending its graduates into universities and other institutions around the world. In New Zealand graduates like 'Okusi Mahina and Opeti Taliai - and I could mention many other names - have made their mark. Even though the institution is struggling, to say the least, in Tonga, it is renewing itself as part of the Tongan diaspora...

Ted: I've spent my life teaching and translating the Greeks, so you won't be surprised that I find it extraordinary and inspiring to learn that 'Atenisi was teaching Greek for decades - from the late 1970s, in fact, until recently. In the same period New Zealand schools stopped offering Greek to their students. What an achievement, for a poor school in a tiny nation to be teaching Heraclitus and other Greek thinkers in ancient Greek!

Scott: And yet there seem to be some Tongans who consider that Futa took too reverential an attitude towards the Western intellectual tradition, and too critical an attitude towards Tongan culture and thought. The poet Konai Helu Thaman, for instance, seems to consider that Futa was too dismissive of Tongan tradition, and in the discussion that followed the first preview of Paul's film Okusi Mahina criticised Futa Helu's interpretation of tapu.

'Okusi argued that Helu and some of his followers - I think he was referring to Opeti Taliai and Michael Horowitz - treated tapu, treated the system of prohibitions and distinctions we refer to using the word tapu, as nothing but a means for chiefs to control commoners in traditional Tongan society. But 'Okusi argued, if I understood him rightly, that tapu was much more than this - that it was a way of dividing up the world, and that it was rooted in the very language Tongans use. It was a foundation of the Tongan world.

'Okusi seemed to think that the critics of tapu - those who would condemn it as irredeemably irrational - had their own, unacknowledged ways of arbitrarily dividing the world up - their own tapu, in other words. They were pretending to sit on a mountaintop, above all irrationality, but were missing the biases that the European intellectual tradition gave them -

Jack: But it's like the argument about Christianity in general, or about religion in general. People used to criticise Gibbon for his depiction of the early Christians, the Christians of the Roman Empire, as a bunch of ignorant hairy fanatics destroying everything in their path - they said you've just missed the whole point, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the fact that God was guiding them. Gibbon said "I don't see any God - I just see a bunch of hairy fanatics: what do you expect me to write?"

So finally when you're describing a system which clearly works in favour of the ruling class, which benefits the powerful, who cares how aesthetically beautiful some of the expressions of that system are, or how spiritualised they are? Who cares how wonderful church music or architecture are? At the end of the day power systems tend to legitimise themselves in aesthetic forms, and to gradually entrench themselves in people's hearts and souls, and then they become very difficult to dislodge. But you've got to combat them. I think it's good if the film's offended some people - you don't want to try to please everyone.

Paul: I was worried about my position as a palangi observer of a Tongan institution. I tried not to make a black and white film - I wanted to present what I saw as a series of paradoxes in 'Atenisi life, and in Tongan life. The film isn't supposed to proceed in a linear manner. Themes are touched on, put aside, then picked up later.

Richard: There seem to be points where an argument is introduced overtly - when it comes straight out of someone's mouth - and then is carried on covertly, through images. I noticed somebody talking about Heraclitus, and his notion of flux, before the focus of discussion moved to another subject. Even as the overt subject of the film shifted, though, a series of images of the sea swelling and breaking were shown. I saw these images as allusions to, or illustrations of, Heraclitus' notion of flux and flow. The film seemed to be working on multiple levels.

And the film gave me an overwhelming feeling of strangeness, especially in its early stages. I felt the alieness of Tonga -

Paul: It exists in a different time and space. The very fact that people find it possible, in Tonga, to sit back and think about Heraclitus for days on end, to sit around the kava bowl and philosophise at such length - this is something that impressed me when I spent two years teaching at 'Atenisi. The methods of teaching there were partly determined by the plentiful supply of time, and by the porous nature of the boundaries between work and leisure.

Ted: What were you teaching at 'Atenisi?

Paul: I gave a course in world literature. I'd begin with the Greeks, with Aristophanes and other dramatists, then work through Don Quixote, and Moby Dick, I did the Romantic poets, Tagore, a lot of Joyce -

Scott: What was Futa Helu's teaching style like?

Paul: He never read lectures. He improvised. He did often have lists of dates - lists that began in pre-Socratic times, and went through to the present. He had a very informal way of teaching, and an informal, sometimes eccentric way of mentoring his staff. I remember when one teacher arrived at the school, from the United States - Futa left a note for her that said 'Welcome -we here in Tonga think that blacks are too black, and whites are too white, whereas we are a mellow shade of brown. Tell that to the American racists!' That was Futa's idea of course notes...

Richard: I liked the pigs in the film! They're everywhere!

Scott: Tongan pigs roam down roads and through backyards, but everyone seems to know who owns which pig...

Paul: In a way, that could be a metaphor for Tongan society. On the surface it appears casual, even chaotic, but there is a pattern, there are rules, rules which are at first hidden to outsiders...

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Ballooning, and other acts of defiance

New Zealanders were surprised as well as upset by the recent deaths of eleven balloonists in the Wairarapa. We have gotten used to thinking about ballooning as a safe, even restful pursuit. In recent decades ballooning companies have insinuated their way into our tourism industry, and in regions like the Wairarapa and the Waikato balloon-themed festivals draw tens of thousands of visitors annually. With their silent flight and prettily patterned colours, balloons seem to augment rather than damage the scenic qualities of our countryside.

But ballooning has not always been seen, either in New Zealand or overseas, as a bucolic pastime. Like the train and the iron smelt, the balloon was once a symbol of the industrial revolution and of modernity. The balloon was invented in pre-revolutionary France, but it became famous in the nineteenth century. Meteorologists and physicists sent unmanned balloons higher and higher, as scientific revolution spread from industrial Britain through Western Europe and North America. Cartographers found the view from a balloon basket helpful, as they worked to replace the serpent-filled seas and impregnable mountain walls of whimsical pre-Enlightenment mapmakers with geometric grids. Explorers landed balloons on Arctic bergs and African dunes.

During the American Civil War the Confederate and Union armies used balloons to spy on each other, and in 1871 the Communards of Paris defied the bourgeois armies besieging their city by sending out a balloon-load of propagandists for their cause.

By the first decade of the twentieth century Germany's fleet of cigar-shaped Zeppelin airships could move luxury goods and luxury-craving passengers between European cities; a few years later, as the continent's capitalist class embarked on a civil war, the Zeppelins were adapted to deliver bombs.

Although New Zealand saw its first flight in 1889, ballooning only really arrived here in 1894, when a young American aeronaut named Leila Adair travelled the length of the country, making a series of spectacular ascents in cities and small towns alike.

Billed as the 'Aerial Queen' and 'the only living lady aeronaut' by her brother and manager Arthur, Adair tended to launch her performances from a park or square which had been commandeered for the occasion. After paying a fee, eager locals were invited to help in the drawn-out business of inflating her vehicle. They would help dig a low trench and light a fire there, then watch as the resulting channel of hot air flowed into the converted water tank attached to Adair's balloon, mixing with gas and slowly inflating the thick folds of canvas that lay on the ground.

Once her craft was ready for its journey, the slim, blonde Adair would appear in a blue costume that resembled a bathing suit, balance on the trapeze bars that hung instead of a basket beneath her balloon, and make her ascent, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd below. When she had risen a thousand feet or more into the air, Adair was able to leap from her perch and open a primitive parachute attached to her wrist. Her balloon was supposed to follow her down once it ran out of hot air. But Adair's flights seldom went to plan. In Auckland she was carried by a northerly wind over the harbour, and was eventually forced to leap into the Rangitoto Channel, where a convenient steamer rescued her. After taking off a few days later in the little spa town of Te Aroha, she floated over the Kaimai Ranges and landed in distant Waihi. In Hamilton her balloon began to tear and spew smoke, so that she had to crash land. Adair's luck was no better in the South Island. In Christchurch she was taken to hospital with head wounds, after colliding with a wire clothesline, and on the West Coast she visited another hospital, after knocking herself unconscious during a landing. From January to November 1894, Leila Adair's adventures were constantly reported in the country's newspapers. Thousands paid to watch her launch her strange craft, and many more followed her erratic flights on horseback and in buggies. Through the propaganda of the deed, Adair almost single-handedly introduced aviation to New Zealanders.

Yet 'the Aerial Queen' is little remembered by New Zealanders. She appears in Sandra Coney's book Stroppy Sheilas and Gutsy Girls, and a trapeze artist parachuted to the earth in her honour at the Balloons Over Wairarapa festival in 2008. But Adair's feats go unmentioned in most histories of New Zealand aviation, and no statue or plaque memorialises her.

We can perhaps see the beginning of this indifference even in 1894, amidst the enthusiasm caused by Adair's tour of the country. Although some of the newspaper accounts of Adair's flights are admiring, a number are surprisingly hostile. Adair was repeatedly characterised as arrogant rather than courageous, and avaricious rather than enterprising. Her misfortunes were criticised, and her achievements ignored. The crowds that gathered for Adair's performances sometimes seemed, like Romans at the Colosseum or Victorian Britons at an open-air hanging, to be excited by the prospect of witnessing death. Hostility to 'the only living lady aeronaut' grew so pronounced that Arthur Adair was moved, in the middle of 1894, to write a letter to the Nelson-based paper The Colonist to defend his sister's 'honor and sense of justice'.

To understand the hostility towards Adair in 1894 we have to understand the peculiar consciousness of fin de siecle white New Zealanders. The settlers who descended on these islands in such numbers in the nineteenth century were often economic and spiritual refugees from an Old World in the throes of industrialisation and modernisation. As James Belich has shown in his book Making Peoples, these refugees were drawn to New Zealand by the promise of a 'better Britain', a sort of yeoman's paradise where land was plentiful and cheap and the dark satanic mills of the old country were absent.

Yet the society Pakeha established on the ground they had conquered from Maori was in many ways ruthlessly modern. An efficient modern state was built; agriculture was rationalised, as the customary land taken from Maori was splintered into individually titled plots; railways were laid; and towns and cities burgeoned. By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the modernity of New Zealand society contrasted strangely with the consciousness of most Pakeha. The same men and women who had, in the space of a few calamitous decades, brought capitalism and a modern state to these islands imagined themselves as the inhabitants of a ruritarian paradise, a place uncorrupted by the innovations and problems of industrial Europe. The fin de siecle craze for pretty paintings of local landscapes, the proliferation of romantic novels set in an idealised and infantilised Maori past, and the coining of sentimental self-descriptions like 'God's Own Country' and 'Maoriland' were all expressions of the false consciousness of Pakeha.

Fin de siecle Pakeha had a fear of Germany and the United States, newly industrialised powers which were contesting the hegemony of the British Empire in the Pacific. Newspaper columnists and cartoonists frequently portrayed the United States as a brashly expansionist nation which lacked both the civilised culture of Britain and the egalitarian ethos of 'God's Own Country'. The frequent visits of American naval vessels to this country's ports had made Pakeha aware of the wealth and technological sophistication of 'the Yanks', and Washington's colonisation of the eastern parts of Samoa infuriated Kiwi politicians.

For many Pakeha New Zealanders, the confident ascents Leila Adair made in 1894 using her new-fangled technology seem to have symbolised the vulgarity and ambition of modern America. Ballooning itself quickly came to represent, for large numbers of Pakeha, some of the more frighening features of modernity. Ballons and airships were mysterious foreign inventions which seemed impervious to earthbound authority.

For a couple of months in 1909, misgivings about balloooning created a peculiar popular delusion. In July and August of that year, thousands of New Zealanders saw large, apparently sophisticated airships moving speedily through their skies. Early in July the Tuapeka Times reported that a huge airship 'with propellors' had passed within 'a hundred yards' of a house in Otago Blue Mountains district. The six people who saw the craft were unsure whether it was 'of New Zealand or German origin'. At about the same time, 'mysterious lights' were seen in the sky above Alexandria, and attributed to an airship. Parties of armed men marched into the backblocks of the South Island, after hearing rumours of wrecked ships and German bodies. One man claimed to have discovered an airship refuelling depot, after he came across a couple of cans of petrol on an isolated hill.

At first North Island newspapers joked that sightings of airships were products of the whiskey stills operating in the backcountry of the South Island, but by the second week of August the Evening Post had to admit that 'hot-air ships, cigar-shaped and otherwise' were being seen 'in various parts of the Wellington and Taranaki districts'. Soon the mysterious ships were also being spotted in the skies of Eastland, Auckland, and the Kaipara District.

Some commentators suggested that the airships were the work of a secretive local inventor, but most blamed them on a foreign power. A German yacht named the Seestern had vanished off the coast of Queensland shortly before the airship sightings began, and had been declared lost after a search by an Australian warship. Many Kiwis decided that the Seestern had secretly crossed the Tasman and begun to launch airships, with the aim of gathering intelligence that might be used to plan an invasion of New Zealand.

A few New Zealanders blamed the airships on the Martians, a race known, since the publication of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds a few years earlier, to be quite as martial and expansionist as the Hun.

Even newspapers which declined to take the airship sightings seriously could use them as an occasion for warnings about the evils of modernity and the threat posed by foreign powers. In an editorial published in mid-August 1909, for instance, the Catholic Tablet ridiculed the 'panic' about Zeppelins, but attributed the phenomenon to the way that, in the modern, industrial world, powerful nations 'swarmed over their racial and national boundaries'. After World War One the airship was quickly superseded by the aeroplane. Rather like the train, the balloon gradually ceased to be a symbol of modernity, and began to interest nostalgics, preservationists, and tourism boards. Leila Adair went unhonoured here in the 1890s and early twentieth century because she represented a sinister, foreign innovation; she goes unhonoured today because the bewildering novelty of her ascents is hard to imagine.

One of the very few New Zealand writers to have noticed Leila Adair is Kendrick Smithyman, who used a poem in his 1979 collection Dwarf with a Billiard Cue to describe her near-disastrous visit to Hamilton. In 'Lament, for a North Island Land Association' Smithyman views Adair's Hamilton performance against the backdrop of the city's early history. Hamilton was founded in 1864, after British and colonial forces had defeated King Tawhiao's army in a series of battles, and driven most Waikato Maori into exile in the central North Island. Many of the city's earliest inhabitants were soldiers who had been rewarded for their service with plots of flood-prone land. Hamilton was located far from markets, divided by the Waikato River, and threatened by Tawhiao's forces, which maintained pa a few miles south of the town, on the far side of the Puniu River.

In the early parts of his poem Smithyman considers the Land Associations, conclaves of property speculators which often bought up territory abandoned by disillusioned ex-soldiers and sold it on, with the help of overcharged propaganda, to new and hopeful settlers. In their prospectuses and newspaper advertisments the Land Associations commonly used sexual imagery to describe the Waikato and similar regions. Would-be farmers were urged to take possession of 'virgin' and 'fertile' lands, so that they might plant their seeds there.

Smithyman mocks the 'fecund' vocabulary of the Land Association propagandists. Noting the miseries of the early Pakeha settlers of the Waikato, he claims that, far from conquering the region, these settlers 'became hers'. Floods, droughts, erosion, and Maori raiding parties were all, according to Smithyman, 'gestures' intended to show that 'she was not wholly knuckled/ under'.

Later in his poem Smithyman describes the efforts of those agents of boantical and zoological imperialism, acclimatisation societies, to introduce pigeons into the Waikato. The birds were supposed to provide shooting practice for Pakeha soldier-settlers and militiamen, who had had, since the end of the war, no 'nigs/ suitable for targetting'. To the frustration of acclimatisers and marksmen alike, though, the pigeons 'would not rise' into the skies of the Waikato. Smithyman sees the failure of the birds to acclimatise as another sign of the land's resistance.

Only in the last section of his poem does Smithyman turn to Leila Adair. He imagines her 'speeding and swaying' on her trapeze, as an 'updraft' lifts her high above Hamilton. Adair seems to be defying the land which has frustrated so many newcomers, but just as she has 'kissed her hand to the earth-bound' her balloon begins to 'hiss...serpentine volleying smoke'. Adair parachutes, and lands safety in a gorse bush. The land, Smithyman concludes, is 'not to be defied'. 'Lament, for a North Island Land Association' is only one of scores of poems Smithyman wrote about flight and its consequences. After being conscripted into the army in 1941 the poet requested a transfer to the Air Force, in the hope of becoming a fighter pilot. Smithyman eventually found himself serving as a storeman at Air Force bases, where he witnessed several fatal plane crashes and developed a dread of flying.

In postwar poems like 'Aircrash in Antarctica' and the famous 'Flying to Palmerston', Smithyman suggests that human flight can be a hubristic, and therefore dangerous enterprise, and makes it into a symbol of the excesses of industrial society. Like fin de siecle Pakeha before him, Smithyman thinks that Adair's confidence in the new science of aeronautics was misguided. But where many fin de siecle Pakeha, in their self-delusion, imagined that Adair and other aeronauts were the harbingers of of an alien modernity, Smithyman recognises that aviation complemented rather than conflicted with the society Pakeha had established in the second half of the ninteeenth century. Adair's attempt to 'defy' the land is no more hubristic than the Pakeha attempts to transform and exploit the territory they have conquered in the Waikato and elsewhere. Her balloon is not more outrageous, and a good deal more elegant, than their surveyors' maps and drainage pumps and phosphate fertiliser.

Last week I found myself in Hamilton, and decided to visit the scene of Leila Adair's forgotten ascent. Although Hamilton's central business district and government are located on the western bank of the Waikato, many of the city's earliest inhabitants raised homes in the east, where a grid of streets was laid out around a square of slightly raised land where Maori travellers had traditionally camped. With their resolutely straight lines and their names, which celebrated explorers like Cook, governors like George Grey, colonial fighters like Von Tempsky, and 'friendly' Maori leaders like Robert Naylor, the streets of the east were part of an attempt to impose a new symbolic order on the Waikato. But the streets were soon filled with mud, and most of the families who lived in them were Irish Catholics at odds with the Anglican establishment on the other side of the river. Sydney Square, which is nowadays known as Steele Park, was the social centre of the fledgling suburb of Hamilton East. On weekdays an open-air market operated on the Square's grass, and on Saturdays the space hosted games of rugby or cricket and running races. Processions began and ended in the Square, and couples walked there in the summer evenings.

In 1874 the Society of Oddfellows, a British-based working class 'mutual assistance organisation' with its roots in the trade guilds of the Middle Ages, opened a lodge hall on the corner of Cook and Grey streets, near the northwestern edge of Sydney Square. Funded by Thomas Pearson, an unsuccessful gold miner who had drifted to Hamilton and discovered that soap could be made out of the sand that lay there on the banks of the Waikato, the hall hosted fundraising dances, lectures on the ecology of the horse and the mechanics of railways, and, in 1885, a diorama which depicted, with the help of simulated gunfire and armies of toy soldiers, the British campaign against the Mahdi rebellion in Sudan. After being abandoned by the Oddfellows the hall became a corset factory; today it hosts the Cook Cafe and Bar. When I wandered in at half-past seven, after a long walk down River Road and Grey Street, out of Hamilton's new northern suburbs and into its old, green southeast, the bar's only other patrons were a young couple who were sharing a bottle of wine and encouraging their small boy to skid on his socks along the polished kauri floorboards that Pearson's soap had funded. Apart from a high mezzanine, which must once have been an ideal place to install dignitaries and choirs, there was no clue to the bar's former life.

I bought a beer and walked it to a small porch at the front of the old hall. Across the road in Steele Park a few kids were playing an intermittent game of touch rugby. The oak trees which encircle the park were planted in 1889, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the founding of Hamilton, by some of the 'surviving pioneers', some of whom must have only been middle-aged. I am always impressed by how quickly the impulse toward the commemoration and preservation of colonial history appeared in New Zealand. It is as though the very shallowness of European history on these islands prompted, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the formation of local history societies and the planting of trees and plaques.

As I finished my beer the two speakers that sat like blackbirds on the facade of the Cook began to play what sounded like a mashup of Lady Gaga and an Atari game theme tune from the 1980s. It was time to escape, so I walked to the squat wooden pavilion at the northern end of Steele Park. According to a report published in the New Zealand Herald and republished in the Taranaki Herald, it was in front of this building that Leila Adair launched her balloon on Saturday, March the 24th, 1894. As a crowd 'far larger than ever gathers for local sports' watched from Sydney Square and nearby streets, Adair rose 'gently' to an altitude of about three hundred feet, so that she 'seemed no bigger than a child' to earthbound observers.

I headed towards the southeast corner of the park, following Adair's trajectory. A couple of the kids stopped chasing the ball and looked at me, when I strayed over the touchline of the invisible rugby pitch they had made under one of the 1889 oaks. "Sorry" I said, pointing at the fragments of sky that showed through the leaves above our heads. "I'm looking for a balloon." They turned away and rejoined the chase.

Leila Adair had planned to drift a few kilometres east, into the raw farming country beyond the edge of Hamilton, then parachute to safety and wait for her balloon to follow her down. A group of Hamiltonians had set out from Sydney Square in carriages and on horseback to watch her descent. Before it had travelled the two hundred or so metres from one end of the Square to the other, though, Adair's balloon began to tear and smoke. As she drifted east out of the square and began to float east up Cook Street, losing height as she went, the tear spread steadily wider, until it stretched from the top to the bottom of her balloon's canvas skin. The Herald's anonymous reporter wondered whether the balloon 'would collapse in mid-air, or whether it would last until it reached to the ground'. He saw Adair clinging to her trapeze, and decided that, because she had not used her parachute, she 'evidently trusted' in the ability of her craft to get her safely to the ground. In truth, Adair would have had no choice except to hang tight: she was too close to the ground to use her parachute.

The balloon continued to drop, until it was hanging just a few feet above an open drain that flowed alongside Cook Street. Adair was able to leap out of her vehicle just before it crashed into a large mudhole at the end of the drain. The Herald's reporter judged her lucky:

It certainly was a narrow escape, for had the balloon lasted buoyant a few yards further and fallen into the water and collapsed while its occupant was still clinging to it, instead of on the top of the bank above the water-hole, she could not have got free and would have been smothered beneath the weight of the canvas in the pool of muddy water.

A 'rush of carriages and horsemen' arrived beside the mudhole, and Adair, who was, according to the Herald, 'considerably excited by her adventure', returned to Sydney Square's pavilion, where she addressed the crowd apologetically, 'expressing regret at the failure and hoping they would not think her a fraud'.

Smithyman's vision of Adair parachuting on a gorse bush, which he acknowledged finding in a book by HMN Norris about Hamilton's early history, is contradicted by the report that appeared in the New Zealand Herald and the Taranaki Herald. Did Morris, and perhaps also Smithyman, decide to dignify Adair's descent, by implying that it was controlled and safe, if finally rather uncomfortable?

I wandered up Cook Street, imagining Adair's wrinkled, ruined balloon wallowing like some grotesque elephant in the muddy water she avoided. I looked for traces of an open drain, but the road was tarred, and the pavement was smooth concrete.

It was unlikely, I realised, that many of the houses on present-day Cook Street were standing when Leila Adair came floating past. The year before Adair's flight Richard Seddon had begun what would be a long reign as Liberal Premier of New Zealand. In the second half of the 1890s Seddon's government started to offer low interest loans to help its middle class supporters buy homes, and this incentive along with the emergence of steam-powered saws and other advanced building technology encouraged a housing boom in Hamilton, where some residents had already benefited from a take-off in the Waikato economy caused by refrigerated shipping and large-scale drainage schemes.

Hamilton's population increased sevenfold between 1900 and 1916, and scores of fashionable villas were raised over the ruins of small cottages on Cook and adjacent streets. As the new century went on the villas, with their wraparound verandahs and bay windows, were superseded by simpler but cheaper bungalows, and in the 1940s Hamilton East became one of the testing grounds for the first Labour government's state housing programme, as a whole new suburb - Hayes Paddock, a collection of pleasantly winding streets beside the Waikato River - was given over to state houses.

Today villas and bungalows of Cook Street are fronted by banks of flowers and by mature trees. A datura plant leaned over a picket fence and shook its tiny inverted parachutes, as I stopped on the pavement to scribble a note. In the next yard a taratara, one of the few natives in this suburb of oaks and poplars, seemed to be absorbing the sulfur light from the dusk sun. Cook Street has been transformed since 1894, and it can be argued that, with its batallions of exotic trees and streets with determinedly British street names laid in grids over old kainga and pa and kumara beds, Hamilton as a whole is one of the most thoroughly transformed, thoroughly Anglicised, places in New Zealand. In the 1930s local politicians even went to the trouble of commandeering unemployed relief workers and demolishing the hill which sat on the edge of the city's business district. Known to Maori as Te Kopu Mania O Kirikiriroa, Garden Place Hill had been the site of an altar, and observatory, and an ancient grove of taro before 1864. Despite or because of its traditional significance, the hill was broken up and hauled away in wheelbarrows and trucks. I headed back down Cook Street past the bar, where Lady Gaga was still singing, crossed Grey Street, and found a view of the Waikato River from the carpark of a liquor shop. In the late sunlight the dirty water looked like varnished wood. I wondered whether Kendrick Smithyman was not romantic to believe that this environment has managed to defy those who have bought and settled on it since 1864. Doesn't the transformation of Hamilton mock the poet's view of settlement as a crisis-ridden and ultimately doomed enterprise? How can the 'land', to which Smithyman rather sentimentally gave a female identity, really resist the changes wrought by tar and concrete and a thousand alien names? Leila Adair may have been dragged back down to earth, and balloons may still sometimes fall out of the sky, but what about the scores of planes that land every day at Hamilton's international airport?

But then I remembered the bankrupt 'developments' in Hamilton's northern suburbs, where tarred roads peter out amidst ragwort and toitoi, or beside the rotting ribs of half-finished houses. In the north the sort of real estate boom that would have delighted the old Land Associations was brought to a brusque end by the global economic crisis of 2008. Developers declared themselves insolvent and, in the tradition of the soldier-settlers of the 1860s, walked off the land they had occupied with such confidence. The many FOR SALE signs on Cook Street suggest that the housing crisis may be spreading south. Kendrick Smithyman may yet be proven correct.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

(Mis)understanding 1951

Once again this blog is off the political pace. While Chris Trotter has been banging out an open letter to David Shearer, appealing to the Bible as well as to the shadow of Harry Holland in an effort to get the newly minted Labour leader to support Auckland wharfies in their battle against union-busters, I've been wandering through the virtual forest that is Papers Past, looking for connections between the Zeppelin Scare that beset New Zealand for a couple of months in 1909 and the transition from villa to bungalow housing in East Hamilton in the first half of the twentieth century.

Encouraged by Chris's talk of parallels between the present dispute on the wharves and the Waterfront lockout of 1951, not to mention the Great Strike of 1913, I thought I'd dig out a review I wrote, all the way back in 2001, of Anna Green's study of the drama of 1951. I was discomforted, though, when I took a look at the review, which appeared in the now-defunct Marxist journal revolution. My criticisms of Green's book seemed reasonable enough, but my almost unrelenting defence of Dick Scott's 151 Days, an insider's account of the lockout published by the Communist Party soon after the end of the struggle, seems a little quixotic.

While Scott fought on the side of the angels in 1951, his rambling, incorrigibly subjective book can hardly be considered the final word on the lockout. The emotive early pages of his tome, which seek to present the 1951 battle as the simple continuation of an unbroken history of class struggle stretching back all the way to the Wakefield settlements, are particularly problematic. By cherrypicking examples of heroic workers' struggle and ignoring counterexamples of apathy, cross-class collaboration against Maori and other minorities like Chinese, and intra-working class conflict, Scott offers up a quite misleading image of this country's history.

Although Scott never admitted it, and perhaps never even realised it, his first book was contradicted by many of his subsequent productions. His important studies of colonial brutality at Parihaka and in the Cooks and Niue, for instance, show quite clearly the extent to which Pakeha of all classes could identify with each other, in opposition to Polynesians. 151 Days began with an account of a strike by workers in the Wakefield settlement of New Plymouth, but Ask that Mountain showed that the Pakeha workers and small farmers of Taranaki were complicit in the smashing of the Parihaka commune in the early 1880s. In Would a Good Man Die?, Scott shows how a horny-handed son of the Pakeha working class created a police state on Niue in the name of colonial munificence, and was eventually assasinated for his troubles.

My review of Green's book was written at a time when South Island wharfies were resisting an attempt to casualise their jobs. I knew a number of people who were standing on picket lines in places like Port Chalmers, and I remember writing one or two agitational articles about the dispute for the far left press. At the same time, I was contemplating doing a PhD, and getting interested in the idea of digging out a few archives. I was trying to balance an enthusiasm for political activism and agitational literature with a growing interest in and respect for scholarship, and the result was an odd mixture of political and scholarly, or pseudo-scholarly, arguments.

I criticised Anna Green for having a social democratic, and therefore reformist worldview - but I was not content with making the normal far left political criticism of such a position. I linked her reformism to what I saw as her failure to organise her empirical research into the 1951 dispute around an hypothesis - a 'big idea'. And I tried to ennoble Dick Scott's first book by disguising its unsustainably heroic narrative of New Zealand working class history as a 'bold' and 'robust' 'hypothesis'. I might have defended parts of 151 Days in detail, but I felt it best to pass other sections over in silence. The Communist Party had been badly damaged by Stalinism and its cultural tentacle, Zhdanovism, by the early 1950s, and Scott's text was at times as full of philistinism and national chauvinism as an issue of The Truth. After Uncle Joe had told them that postwar New Zealand was being colonised culturally as well as economically by the United States, the Communist Party had decided, presumably against the advice of the long-suffering RAK Mason, to campaign against such symptoms of decadent imperialist culture as Abstract Expressionist painting, comic strips, and jazz. Scott's book concludes, not with a tribute to the workers who fought so hard against Sid Holland in 1951, but with a rant about the role comics were playing in the corruption of Kiwi youth. Why Scott didn't excise such passages when his book was reissued in 2001 I don't know.

I still had the notion, a decade ago, that scholarship could only be satisfactory if it were linked to political agitation. Without the discipline of activism, and the need to convert piles of data and abstruse theorising into hard-hitting articles and leaflets, the scholar was, I thought, doomed to go off the rails, and become politically and intellectually suspect. It never occurred to me that my demand for political purity amongst scholars might be a way of insulating myself against difficult arguments, or that the past might be important precisely because it wasn't always 'relevant' to the present - wasn't, in other words, immediately convertible into some snappy lesson in political morality.

It was not possible for me to understand, in 2001, that an avowedly apolitical historian had recently published a powerful and heretical interpretation of the past Dick Scott was content to romanticise. Miles Fairburn's book The Ideal Society and Its Enemies overthrew all the smug pieties of both revoluationary socialists like Dick Scott and liberal nationalists like Keith Sinclair and Erik Olssen, by insisting that, for Pakeha at least, the nineteenth century and early twentieth century were characterised not by mateship and the beginnings of the road to the welfare state, but rather by an almost misanthropic individualism.

Fairburn's version of the nineteenth century has been condemned by many lefties, because it seems to make events like the Great Strike of 1913 and the lockout of 1951 into aberrations. Ultimately, though, and no matter what Howard Zinn and his local avatars have said, the left is better served by accurate interpretations than by sentimental stories. Perhaps comrade Fairburn will produce a study of the 1951 lockout?

Now that I've disowned it, here's that text from 2001...

British Capital, Antipodean Labour: Working the New Zealand Waterfront, by Anna Green (University of Otago Press, 2001)

Perhaps Anna Green is brave to write a history of an event as contemporary as the 1951 Lockout.* The fiftieth anniversary of the Lockout has been marked by a number of reunions, several public meetings, numerous arguments over talkback radio and dinner tables, and a major conference featuring, amongst other things, the launch of British Capital, Antipodean Labour.

Though some of the backward glances have no doubt been prompted by the anti-casualisation struggle currently being waged on the South Island waterfront, the great Lockout and the strikes that flared up around it have always been a fount of division and inspiration for New Zealanders: a source of argument, a store of legend and anecdote, and a litmus test for leftists. I even know a sad old man who, as an excessively idealistic teenager, broke up with his girlfriend over the issue! It might seem, then, that 1951 is a piece of their history that New Zealanders take too seriously to leave to historians.

Perhaps the choppy waters surrounding the subject of 1951 seemed inviting to Anna Green when she began, in the late 1980s, to research the PhD that forms the basis of British Capital, Antipodean Labour. After all, what budding Kiwi historian wouldn’t want ‘Sorted out 51’ on their CV? To take a subject surrounded by superheated debate, and coolly research it into clear focus - that’s the mission statement of British Capital, Antipodean Labour. For Green, good academic history is to be wrested from polemic, from the 'myths of New Zealand labour historiography'.

To understand Green’s book, then, we have to understand the academic enterprise it advertises. There’s something touching about the image of The Historian, seated in an unnaturally quiet room, leafing intently through piles of indecently obscure
documents. Of course, historians haven’t always been everyone’s favourite pedants: Herodotus, the founder of the genre, was justly dubbed ‘the Father of Lies’, and many of his disciples have been too concerned with the truth to be all that bothered with facts. It was the Victorians, that race of collectors, who came up with the idea of the historian as fact-finder and storer, and were able to imagine an ‘Ultimate History’, the results of the labours of generations of historians, which might contain all the facts of history, and nothing else.

The Victorian creed of pedantry took a few hits in the twentieth century, when pesky philosophers of history showed up on the academic scene with awkward questions about awkward terms like the fact-value distinction and the theory-dependence of observation, but managed eventually to resurrect itself in a doctrine often called ‘social’ or ‘grassroots’ history.

Although it has frequently posed as a new ‘history from below’, enamoured of the minutae of the lives of the members of that mythical race, ‘ordinary people’, social history has often been afflicted by very Victorian hang-ups about the sanctity of facts, and the sinfulness of ‘speculation’. Like its dour grandmother, social history tends to blush at the idea of constructing a ‘big picture’ of long-term historical trends to complement its detailed sketches of individual pieces of the past.

Cautious in tone, ultra-empirical in methodology, and studiously myopic, British Capital, Antipodean Labour seems to me to be a graduate of the school of social
history. And it should not be thought that all Green’s toil have been in vain: she has unearthed, with admirable care, some fascinating and potentially quite useful information about the world of the New Zealand waterfront up until 1951. Interviews with dozens of ageing seagulls and an inspection of the archives of British shipping companies have been especially fruitful. As a result of these labours, we now have a picture of the great extent of the wharfies’ use of what Green calls ‘informal resistance’ (clue: Sid Holland would call it lounging and stealing), not to mention a powerful impression of the amorality of the British-based shipping companies that gave the wharfies most of their work.

The irony of British Capital, Antipodean Labour, and the thing that makes it so irritating to read, is the fact that Green’s methodology cannot deal with
the implications of the subject-matter it has unearthed in such quantities. To put it bluntly, Green’s book tells us how, but does not tell us why. Her close-up focus
is great for revealing detail, but she is unable to make sense of that detail by putting it in the perspective that only a long shot can provide. Consider the following passage, from the book’s introduction, where Green makes a rare foray into the dangerous realm of historiography:

Undoubtedly, the waterfront dispute had far wider consequences than most industrial conflicts...Two myths of New Zealand’s labour historiography have shaped rival interpretations. The first, the dominant liberal left myth, is informed by a dichotomy of struggle between labour militants and moderates. From this perspective, the militants who controlled the watersiders’ union in 1951 rejected arbitration, thereby unwisely challenging the power of the state, and as a consequence destroyed both the union, and public confidence in the Labour party....The second - socialist - myth derives from that deep vein of millennial thought in which a heroic working class fights to create socialism.

As Dick Scott explained in the introduction to his book on 1951, ‘...the task, as I saw it in the circumstances, was to record all that positive in the great struggle, all that has gone to enrich our brave traditions’...neither myth, as advanced in the previous literature, provides an adequate explanation for the events of 1951. The dispute did not emerge from a vacuum, but exploded after a long period of conflict.

One wonders how Green can claim that Dick Scott did not recognise the 'long period of conflict' that preceded the explosion of 1951, if the Dick Scott she talks about is indeed the same Dick Scott who wrote 151 Days, the first and best extended treatment of the 1951 Lockout. After all, Scott’s tumultuous narrative
begins not in 1951 but in 1841, with an account of a strike, possibly this country’s first, by New Zealand Company employees in the miserable new settlement of New Plymouth. Scott was a member of the Communist Party of New Zealand when he wrote 151 Days, and his book is suffused with ideas of the eternal conflict of interest between worker and boss, and the necessity of class struggle.

Surely Green does not think that the 'brave traditions' referred to in 151 Days exclude the stoushes on the Kiwi waterfront in the decades before 1951? It is in fact Green, and not Scott, who has difficulty in giving a sense of historical perspective to 1951 and its precursors. We can this see this much when we consider the sentence which follows those quoted above:

In seeking to explain the abysmal labour relations on the waterfront, it is essential to to examine the labour process on the wharves: the nature of the work and the way in which it was organised by the employers, for it is here that so
much of the conflict began.

Encountering this sentence, I immediately wanted to ask ‘Why did the work take on the particular nature it had?’ and ‘Why did the employers organise the work in the ways that they did?’ In other words, why did the employers try to get total control of the wharfies’ work, and make them work in such dirty, dangerous conditions?'

Unlike Green, Scott had answers to these questions - he saw the capitalist drive for profits, and the alleged fact that increased profits could only come from the increased exploitation of labour, as the reasons for control freak shipping companies making wharfies risk their lives in filthy conditions. In giving these answers, he relied on a big historical picture, which was the product of the analysis of, amongst other things, many other specimens of industrial conflict, to make the sense of the details of the conflict on New Zealand’s waterfront.

I am not suggesting that Scott’s is the only sensible possible treatment of the 1951 Lockout and the conflicts that preceded it; rather, I am arguing that Green’s research has been insufficiently informed by the sort of hypothesis - I have been calling it a ‘big picture’ - that might be able to illuminate the facts she has unearthed. It’s all very well to collect facts, but facts need the explanation that can only be provided by a sophisticated hypothesis - a hypothesis which of course ought to be open to falsification and modification. Part of the problem for Green is thatthe details her close ups capture are so extraordinary and controversial that, for the New Zealand reader at least, they demand an explanation of the type she seems most reluctant to give.

Unwilling to explain it with reference to something exterior to it, Green tends to mystify aspects of her subject matter. In the pseudo-explanation of waterfront conflict quoted above, for instance, Green mystifies the features of her ‘labour process’. The “nature of the work” and the way that the work 'was organised by employers' cannot serve as explanations for the struggles between wharfies and employers, simply because they are effects of that struggle. As new evidence unearthed by Green shows, the dirty and dangerous nature of waterfront work was the product of employer penny-pinching, not any immanent quality of that work.

Similarly, the relentless attempts of the shipping companies to exert total control over wharfies’ work were the product of their own obsessive drive for efficiency on the waterfront, not any abstract necessary condition for a functioning waterfront.
Like the crude environmentalist who fingers technology as the ‘cause’ of pollution, neglecting to mention the social relations that govern the use of technology in capitalist society, Green blames the features of the ‘labour process’ for conflict on the waterfront, when these features were the product of a set of social relations, viz. the relationship between wharfies and their employers. Any examination of this relationship would lead away from her immediate subject matter into an examination of the wider historical world which gave this relationship its shape, and is thus off limits.

When the new subject matter she presents pushes especially urgently towards generalisation, Green resorts to conceptual hi-jinks in an effort to neutralise its implications. The title of her book reflects her introduction of a supposed “third party” - the British-based shipping companies - into the “old story” of waterfront conflict between workers and the state. By presenting ‘British Capital’ as having interests which importantly contradict those of Sid Holland’s government and its Kiwi capitalist supporters, Green attempts to prevent the evidence she has unearthed for the contradictory interests of shipping companies and wharfies being mobilised as evidence for a class struggle-centred account of waterfront conflict. If Dick Scott had had access to all Green’s material showing the shipping companies’ hatred for the wharfies, and of the contradictory interests that formed this hatred, he would have happily (too happily, perhaps) counted it as yet more evidence for his picture of 1951 and its precursors as a confrontation between two classes with hopelessly contradictory interests. After all, the British capitalists and the Kiwi capitalists were both members of the same class, weren’t they? However much they might disagree over issues like port charges and taxation, the British and Kiwi capitalists had a fine common cause in their war against the wharfies. Both, after all, had a huge interest in the efficient functioning of the ports of the old British empire.

The whole conception of ‘Kiwi capitalists’ as distinct from ‘British capitalists’ seems slightly dubious when applied to the first half of the twentieth century. Only a few decades before the period Green studies Britons had created capitalism in New Zealand, bankrolling the development of the country’s productive forces.

The emergent capitalist class in New Zealand retained very close ties to the class of the 'Mother Country', investing shares in its companies and offspring in its universities. It is by no means obvious that the two groups grew far apart in the first half of the twentieth century. Green can only ignore the huge importance of the common interests of Kiwi and British capital, and thereby keep her ‘discovery’ of a “third party” viable, because of her refusal to consider her subject in terms of anything exterior to it. By treating the force of capital in an ahistorical way, i.e. by isolating it in the narrow focus of the New Zealand waterfront in the years between 1915 and 1951, she is able to split it along national lines, and distort a conflict that fundamentally contained only two parties.

Another of Green’s conceptual hi-jinks involves the treatment of the ‘informal resistance’ offered by wharfies to the shipping companies’ work regime. British Capital, Antipodean Labour offers up fascinating evidence of such practices as spelling (rotated ‘loafing’ on the job), gliding (leaving the job early) and theft, and shows that they were forms of direct industrial action. Green is anxious, however, to assert the ultimate futility of informal resistance: according to her, it undermined attempts by some union bosses to gain 'workers’ control' of the waterfront by more formal means.

Green’s 'workers’ control' is a rather miserable predecessor of the ‘partnership model’ of worker-boss relationships championed in the 1980s and early '90s by the likes ofKen Douglas. 'Workers’ control' of the waterfront was thankfully rejected by Jock Barnes and the left wing of the wharfies’ union, and junked after 1947. In
a revealing passage, Green quotes a pitch for 'workers’ control' made to the shipping companies by union bureaucrat Nigel Roberts in the early 40s:

If we can get control of the job we will be the responsible ones to fire them [‘troublesome watersiders’] out. Our trouble today is that we cannot get rid of them because we are not the employers. Make us the employer and we will see that they play the game...

Commenting on Roberts’ words, Green claims that 'The contradiction between strategies of resistance and self-management [i.e. in Green’s book, ‘workers’
control’] could not have been more clearly expressed'. Here Green’s notion that grassroots rebellion on the wharves and the managerial ambitions of Roberts were strategies in pursuit of the same aim is truly absurd: informal resistance and Roberts’ ‘workers’ control’ were not different routes to the same port, but different routes to entirely different ports. Unable to escape the confines of her subject matter byimagining a genuine case of workers’ control, Greens ends up betraying the implications of the material she has uncovered on informal resistance.

In summary, then, the extreme measures British Capital, Antipodean Labour takes to accommodate the events of 1951 within the paradigm of naively empirical social history end up making it a confusing and unsatisfying read. Many of New Zealand’s social scientists get away with naive empiricism, but Green has chosen a subject which is too demanding of such a technique. 1951 was a year in which extraordinary things happened - a year in which the basic, usually hidden features of New Zealand society suddenly showed themselves with a frightening clarity in the form of Sid Holland’s short-lived police state and the opposition it so effectively crushed. For the pamphleteers in prison and the marchers on the end of long batons, the need for a big picture to explain very big, almost unimaginable events was only too clear. It was people like these who, a year after the end of the Lockout, bought out the first edition of Dick Scott’s 151 Days . Despite its flaws Scott’s book managed to open up a real historical perspective on the waterfront war, offering an extraordinary explanation for extraordinary events. Can Anna Green’s book, full as it is with new-found facts, offer half as much understanding of its subject as 151 Days?

* Green would no doubt argue that her book is about far more than just the 1951 Lockout: it is, afterall, subtitled Working the New Zealand Waterfront, 1915-1951, and deals with the world of the waterfront during those years inconsiderable detail. In my opinion, however, the whole of the book is orientated toward the year 1951, and its pre-1951 material is intended primarily to throw light upon the events of that year.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Return of the cossacks

I'm sorry to have neglected this blog over the past few days: I once again defied my father's advice and ventured beyond that modern Hadrian's Wall, the Bombay Hills, into the central Waikato, where the absence of a sea breeze makes walks across drained peat lakes and crawls through holloways of regenerating gorse and thistles particularly sticky work at this time of year.

I haven't been all that far from fibre optic cables, nor indeed from computers, but I like to pretend, whenever I'm in anything vaguely resembling the countryside, that I've left the apparatus of the global communications grid behind. I like to pretend, in fact, that New Zealand's provinces are full of communications dead zones, where GPS systems as well as internet and cellphone connections give out. Call me paranoid, if you like, but ever since I watched Ridley Scott's Body of Lies the initials GPS and the sight of unsheathed cellphones have made me think of CIA-owned satellites peering down through the earth's polluted skies, and of a fantastically aerodynamic missile waiting to fall from some unseen helicopter onto my bald sunburnt head.

Now that I'm back in Auckland and catching up on the news, I can see that not everyone holidaying in the backblocks has shared my aversion to modern communications. Both Tony Gibson, the union-busting Chief Executive Officer of Ports of Auckland, and Christine Fletcher, the retired Tory MP, have been holed up in remote and salubrious beach resorts, but that hasn't stopped them cellphoning various media outlets and denouncing, in language of Churchillian solemnity, the avarice and arrogance of those well-known scions of privilege, the wharfies of Auckland.

Gibson, who earns three quarters of a million dollars a year, and Fletcher, who married into New Zealand's wealthiest family, have both condemned the refusal of the wharfies to accept a 20% pay cut and the abolition of their collective contract. Sitting by the Coromandel seashore, Fletcher and Gibson have condemned the poor work ethic of the wharfies, who have been standing on a picket line in Auckland's drizzle. These people are so unconscious of their hypocrisy that they make Sarah Palin and Paris Hilton look like paragons of ironic self-awareness. (Perhaps, though, we shouldn't be too surprised: I think it was my old mate Roger Fox who liked to describe families like the Fletchers as the "cream of New Zealand", on the grounds that their members were "rich, white, and very thick".)

No one who cares about the right of employees to negotiate collective contracts will take any pleasure in the campaign that Gibson and his suited thugs have launched against the Maritime Union of New Zealand, but I suspect that at least one well-known historian will see the campaign as an opportunity to interest New Zealanders in their past.

Mark Derby has a longstanding interest in the Great Strike of 1913, which saw wharfies and other members of the 'Red' Federation of Labour clashing with gun-toting cops and drunken farmers riding half-wild horses. Nicknamed 'Massey's Cossacks', in honour of the union-busting Prime Minister who recruited them, the baton-swinging horsemen were tasked with breaking the picket lines wharfies had formed around the ports of Auckland and other cities.

Back in 2006 Mark Derby curated a well-received exhibition which exposed the ferocity of the Great Strike, and he has been interested in producing some new commemoration to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the conflagration. Now that Tony Gibson and his supporters in the National Party are talking openly about a drawn-out war to the death with the wharfies and their allies in other unions, nobody can doubt the relevance of the history lesson Mark offers.

Kendrick Smithyman was the son of a wharfie veteran of the Great Strike of 1913, and in his posthumously published book Imperial Vistas Family Fictions he offers up a series of poems about the conflict and its aftermath. Smithyman describes the idealism and confusion of the men and women who built the 'Red Feds' in the early years of the twentieth century, the epic strike and its ultimate failure, and the subsequent persecution of unionists like his father, who had to be smuggled out of the country in the hold of a ship so that he could seek sanctuary and work in tropical ports like Apia and Brisbane.

I'd better abandon this computer - Skyler is shouting at me to come to bed, and Tony Gibson and his mates are probably aiming a missile in the direction of my study - but here's one of the poems Smithyman wrote about the Great Strike of 1913:

Massey's Cossacks

They came in from the farms.
They liked the batons which Government made
for them; some liked better the batons
they made themselves.
Closing on Lyttelton
they found the road carpeted with sizeable
furniture tacks. When they charged in Featherston Street
marbles, glass stoppers, steel bearings
went under them. “A pity about the horses,
not about the Specials.”

Tom Young told an outdoors meeting,
“If they try to hit you, you hit them back.”
In court this became Inciting to Riot,
but that was three weeks later,
and another month before he was sentenced:
three months on The Terrace.
Father ran the office.

The Cossacks rode
home. They were not wiser, but they'd won.

Footnote: Chris Trotter has a useful analysis of the significance of the current battle on the waterfront and some suggestions about how to win it, while the Socialist Aotearoa site is asking supporters of the wharfies to sign an Open Letter to Len Brown and join the picket line.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Gu Cheng and the troubles of Chinese capitalism

[Like all good Poundians, Hamish Dewe is a Sinophile. He spent the first decade of this century in China, working, studying Mandarin and writing mordant poems about the anabolic growth of capitalism in cities like Shanghai and Shenyang. In the second part of the interview we did last week I asked Hamish a few questions about the situation of China today...]

SH: What have you been reading lately?

HD: I've been rereading Gu Cheng, the exiled Chinese poet who killed himself and his wife on Waiheke Island in 1993. Although Gu Cheng is quite well-known, not all of his stuff has been translated, and I'm thinking of putting some of his early poems into English.

SH: Gu Cheng is perhaps more famous for the tragic manner of his death than for his poetry. His death was a major news story in New Zealand and in China, and a movie has been made about his troubled relationship with the woman he killed. Does the terrible end of Gu Cheng's life make it harder to approach his poetry?

HD: It does. There's probably a partial parallel with Ezra Pound, another great poet who did bad things (I've been following the debate about Pound on Reading the Maps). But I think that whereas Pound committed his sins over a period of many years, making anti-semitic statements in his writing, praising Mussolini and Hitler, and making hundreds of pro-fascist radio broadcasts during World War Two, Gu Cheng suffered a psychotic breakdown, and committed one cataclysmic action. There isn't evidence that the murder of his wife was premeditated.

I didn't know Gu Cheng personally, but it is apparent, from the many accounts of his life, that he was a very unstable person. Pound was of course spared the death penalty after World War Two because friends like TS Eliot and Ernest Hemingway managed to persuade the United States government that he was insane. Whether he was ever insane, in the ordinary sense of the word, is quite debatable, but it suited his supporters to present him that way, at least for a while. I don't think that many people would doubt that Gu Cheng was insane at the end of his life.

SH: Why did Gu Cheng wear a cut-off length of trouser leg on his head, as though it were a hat?

HD: He believed that it stopped people from stealing his thoughts.

SH: Is there a political dimension to Gu Cheng's breakdown? It is very easy to brand artists who suffer from severe mental illnesses as mad geniuses, and to thereby ignore the social and historical implications of their work. Gu Cheng was a man who often found himself on the wrong side of the Chinese state. As a youngster he was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and forced to do menial work in difficult conditions, for little or no recompense. Later, after returning to urban China and becoming known as one of the group of 'Misty' poets, who produced obscure yet politically resonant texts, he came under fire from the government of Deng Xiaoping. His poetry was criticised as 'decadent', because it departed from the tenets of propagandistic socialist realism, and his own father was induced to denounce him in print.

HD: Yes, that's an extraordinary essay. It begins 'I am finding it harder and harder to understand the poetry of my son, Gu Cheng...' The father was himself a poet, but he kept close to the socialist realist line, producing propaganda. Like many other figures in the Chinese literary establishment, he was troubled by the complexity of the texts that the Misty poets produced. They rediscovered the mystery and depth of the Chinese language, and their phrases and images have an ambiguity, a multidimensionality, which is anathema to political propaganda.

SH: And yet the Misty poets were not apolitical, were they?

HD: No. If they were apolitical then they would have been easier to dismiss. The Misty poets were able to find a middle way, if you like, between boneheaded propaganda and impenetrable obscurity. The images in their poems couldn't be reduced to a simple political meaning, but they nevertheless resonated with the hopes and fears of young Chinese readers. Consider Gu Cheng's famous phrase 'I have been given dark eyes, but I use them to search for light'. There is an allusion in this phrase to the experience of the generation of urban youth which was persecuted in the Cultural Revolution, and to the attempts of the members of that generation to change China for the better after their return to the cities. But the allusion is not made explicit. There is no outright denunciation of the Chinese state. That would not have been possible in print, of course.

But I think you should be careful about jumping from that fact that Gu Cheng was persecuted by the Chinese authorities, and eventually had to leave the country, to the conclusion that he was fundamentally a political animal. I don't think politics was as important to him as his own personal phantasmagoria. He lived partly in a world of his imagination. He wasn't someone who could formulate a coherent political programme. If he had been allowed to stay in China then I think he would quite happily have done so. He had an intense attachment to the landscape of China, which he had acquired as a small child, and he never adjusted to life overseas. He refused to learn the English language, even after being given residency in New Zealand, because he was afraid of making the Chinese language 'jealous'.

And after he settled in New Zealand Gu Cheng chose, for whatever reason, to endure a 'double exile', by living on Waiheke Island, away from many of his supporters in the Chinese community of 'mainland' Auckland. He was very isolated. It was probably isolation, rather than political frustration, which contributed to his fate.

SH: The Misty poets were tremendously popular in the 1980s, selling tens of thousands of books and giving readings in stadiums. Does poetry have the same status in China today? Does it provoke the same excitement?

HD: In my experience it does not. There has been a growth in other forms of entertainment - movies, television, computer games, and so on - which has coincided with the economic boom and the growth of consumption. There are lots of writers, lots of books around in today's China, but fiction seems far more popular than poetry. Pulp fiction seems to be particularly popular. There's been quite a fad for slightly smutty novels about the urban underclass, for example -

SH: Might a new protest movement in China - a sort of Chinese version of the 'Arab Spring', or the demonstrations seen in countries like Greece and Spain - recreate an audience for poetry, or at least for serious literature?

HD: China is not without its problems, but I'm far from convinced that such a movement is in the offing. The Communist Party has managed to establish and consolidate the capitalist system in China over the past thirty years. Under the banner of 'socialism with Chinese characteristics', the pursuit of profit and conspicuous consumption have been glorified. Young Chinese are, in my experience, far more interested in the acquisition of cellphones and i pods than they are in ideas like democracy.

And there is a material basis for the consciousness of young Chinese: there really has been, along the eastern seaboard of China, a considerable increase in wealth and spending power over the past few decades. Wages and salaries have increased greatly, albeit from a very low base. I'm not aware of many popular uprisings which took place in the midst of an economic boom -

SH: But some of the increases in wages and salaries have been won through the actions of unofficial unions - through strikes, even. And recently we saw an uprising in the Guangdong city of Wukan, which resulted in the expulsion of the Communist Party and the establishment of an independent local government - HD: Yes, but it seems to me that the movements you talk about are different from the pro-democracy movement of the 1980s. They are not based on ideas, ideas about an alternative society, but on a desire to get a bigger slice of the wealth in actually existing Chinese society. They do not question the system - they only seek to reform it. The union movement may be technically illegal, and indeed may be persecuted, but it could well ultimately benefit Chinese capitalism, by increasing the spending power of Chinese workers, and thus growing the internal market for goods manufactured in China. As the global recession cuts spending power in Europe and America, China is aware that it must find buyers at home for more of its own goods.

I note, as well, that the Wukan protesters have reached an agreement with the Chinese government, and reopened their town to the outside world. I see the union movement and Wukan-style protest movements as having very little intellectual content. I therefore can't see them creating the sort of ferment of ideas we saw in parts of China in the 1980s. But I could be wrong.

SH: Do you think serious economic problems are a prerequisite for widespread dissent in China?

HD: Chinese people, especially in the populous east, have become accustomed, over the last two or three decades, to increases in wealth, in spending power. If that trend was to end suddenly, without any convincing explanation, then the legitimacy of the Communist Party might be eroded. The Communist Party might become a victim of its anti-intellectualism and opportunism. The party has essentially said, for decades now, that it deserves to be in power because it is making China wealthier. If the economy runs into a wall, then the party can hardly revive the sort of voluntarist rhetoric of Mao, who decried bourgeois consumerism and called for sacrifices in the building of socialism. I don't mean to defend Mao, or contrast him positively with the current Communist Party leadership - I'm just pointing out that he had more ideological and rhetorical resources in the face of hard times than the current leaders would have.

If there is a crisis in the Chinese economy, it might well be prompted by the property market. Real estate in China is extraordinarily expensive, especially given the fact that one cannot buy freehold there - everything is leased, albeit for a long time, from the government. Because economic opportunity is focused on the eastern seaboard, in cities like Shanghai, there has been a massive internal migration in this direction over recent decades. A shortage of apartments has seen prices soar. The increase in consumer spending power has only made the problem worse, because people are competing for apartments.

You can nowadays buy a nice house in the Auckland suburbs for the price of a lease on a rundown apartment in an unglamorous part of Shanghai. Apartments in Shanghai are priced by the square metre, and it's not unusual for a square metre to go for the equivalent of eight thousand dollars. Speculators are going wild. It is quite possible that property in many parts of China is currently overvalued, and if reality catches up with the property market we could see a crash, and people owning mortgages worth more than their apartments. In the meantime, don't buy a place in China...

[Posted by Maps/Scott]