Monday, December 31, 2012

The whole world in his hands?

When I was a small boy I was once allowed to sit up late and watch a television programme about space. As the BBC's astronomer-for-life Patrick Moore, who by the early eighties was beginning to resemble a chunk of unlovely moon rock, showed viewers a recent satellite photograph of the earth's western hemisphere, I objected loudly. Why, I asked my parents, were the green and brown expanses of the Americas devoid of lines? Where was the long thin line that divided the United States from Mexico? Why was the isthmus between North and South America not covered in the jagged half-circles that marked out the pathetically small realms of fractious republics like Nicaragua and Honduras?

My parents were amused. Interpreting my confusion as a sign of tiredness, they sent me to bed before I could upset by a satellite's snapshot of the eastern hemisphere. I may be mistaken, but I believe that my mother said something like "You'll understand when you're older, dear", as she tugged me down the hallway towards my bed.
Thirty years later, I am still sometimes startled when I see a shot of earth from space. I'm so used to looking at maps and atlases which show the world's political boundaries - the borders between nations, but also the lines of demarcation between states, counties, districts, cantons, and cities - that I find it difficult to remember that they aren't, in the objective eye of Mother Nature, or the universe, or an approaching fleet of spacecraft filled with aliens uninterested in the intricacies of human history and sociology - real.

My parents might try to deny it, but they are partly responsible for my cartophilia. When I was too young to remember it, they pinned an enormous map of the world on the bedroom I shared with my brother. As I lay in bed before falling asleep or rising, I stared, fascinated, at the shapes of the world's continents, the tangle of its political boundaries, and the fissures made by its great rivers. Accustomed to reports of famine in Africa on the television news, I came to see the continent as an enormous skull, with its cranium bulging into the Atlantic and its mandible extending south. As the Cold War got colder in the early and middle eighties, and movies like Red Dawn and Rocky IV turned the prospect of a Hot War into the stuff of schoolboy fantasy, I became fascinated by that long and cryptic name The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which marched east across the wastes of Siberia towards the Bering Strait, where Alaska seemed to wait like an enormous fist.
The map on my wall was based on the Mercator model of world cartography, which was devised by European imperialists in the sixteenth century and made the northern hemisphere dominate the south spatially as well as politically. The equator sits two-thirds rather than half of the way down the Mercator map. As a result, puny Europe tends to loom as large as South America, and Greenland is bigger than Africa, even though it covers less than a third of the area of that continent.
The regular changes which wars and revolutions give to the world's lines of demarcation mean that a political map is relatively easy to date. I suspect that the map on my bedroom wall was produced in the late seventies or early eighties, because I recall it showing, near the point where Africa tapered off into the Indian Ocean, the names Angola and Mozambique, two nations which crawled from the wreckage of the Portugese empire in 1975. But Angola was still bordered by South West Africa, the name of the colony that Germany established in the nineteenth century and South Africa seized after World War One. South West Africa would not become the independent nation of Namibia until late in the eighties.

It is easy to appreciate the contingent, political nature of maps which show national boundaries, but harder to grasp that even the most scrupulously detailed map of the world's non-human features is incapable of anything approaching objectivity. In the poem which, seven or so years ago, supplied this blog with its name, the great cartographer of regional New Zealand Kendrick Smithyman explained the limitations of his art:

Look for an unformed road 
lifting suddenly, steep. But get over the crest, 
you’re on top of packed sand. 
Carry on to the Head. You cross 
the old tramway which used to go up to 
the Harbour, remains of the one time main road 
to gumfields (south of the river and this next 
river) out from the edge of the Forest. It went on 
down the coast, then climbed inland on the line 
Of a Maori trail. Of course, the map doesn’t 
say anything about that. Maps can 

tell you about what is supposedly present. 
They know little about what’s past and only 
so much about outcomes. They work within 
tacit limits. They’re not good at predicting. 
If everything is anywhere in flux 
Perhaps we may not read the same map twice. 
Aneirin's Uncle and Aunty gave him a map of the world for his first Christmas. Where my first map was flat, Aneirin's is large and round and soft, like the brain of an elephant. It divides the world into nations, and America into states. (After examining Aneirin's world, my father complained about the way that it breaks America, but not similarly large nations like China or Brazil, into its constituent parts. He accused the cartographers involved in the production of the toy of Amerophilia, or Sinophobia, or both, and he may have had a point, but I have always thought that the United States looks better when its internal borders are shown. With its grid of states shaped like squares and rectangles and filled in with strong primary colours, America looks a little like a Mondrian canvas, or an aerial photograph of a Midwest farm sown with different crops.)

The political boundaries on Aneirin's globe are up-to-date, and yet not necessarily unassailable. His version of Europe includes Kosovo, which has been widely recognised as independent since 2008, and his Africa distinguishes South Sudan from Sudan, in recognition of the 2011 referendum where 99% of the people of the south voted to secede from their northern oppressors.
But the nations on Aneirin's globe do not include Somaliland, the former northern region of Somalia which has run its own affairs since the collapse of that state twenty years ago, and has won plaudits from Africa-watchers like Bob Geldof for its democratic elections and relatively peaceful streets. Somaliland has for years now been pleading in vain for recognition as an independent state, but its calls have been opposed by its larger and more powerful neighbour Ethiopia, which is one the United States' most important allies in Africa.
The Republic of Abkhazia, which broke away from Georgia in the late nineties and is recognised by six nations, including Russia and Venezuela, is also absent from Aneirin's globe. Georgia, which is a close ally of the West, still claims Abkhazia, and has talked of regaining the region by force.
Aneirin's globe plants a P on the West Bank to signify Palestine. Is this rather drastic abbreviation a concession to the controversy around the status of Palestine, which has been occupied and colonised by Israel since (at least) 1967, yet was recently recognised by most of the world as an independent nation, or is it simply a necessity, given the tiny size of the West Bank? The mapmakers have given up altogether on naming the tiny European countries of Liechenstein, Monaco, and Vatican City, though they have been able, thanks to the generous blue spaces of the Pacific Ocean, to recognise nations like Nauru, which covers twenty-one square kilometres, and Tuvalu, which is only five kilometres larger.

With their attempts to sum up a complex and contested reality with a few shapes and symbols, maps are a metaphor for the limits of all human attempts to know the world. They are both essential and inherently flawed. They should be seen as an invitation to discussion and redefinition, rather than as final definitions. That, at any rate, is what I think I overheard Aneirin saying to himself when he was playing with his present on Christmas day...

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas at Frank's place

I've just done a dozen very slow circumnavigations of my parents' swimming pool, dragging my son under my arm like a flotation device, in the hope of burning off a little of the fat that my brother-in-law's ham put on my stomach at lunchtime. With that token ritual of obeisance to the cruel gods of health out of the way, I'm now preparing to tuck into a cheesecake. How's your Christmas going, dear reader?

I've tended to post Christmas poems on this blog over the years, because it seems to me that even the worst bit of doggerel is preferable to a Youtube clip of Bing Crosby or John Rowles crooning. Back in 2008 there was a protracted and very interesting debate here after I reproduced Kendrick Smithyman's poem 'A Riddle at Christmas' alongside a page from an eighteenth century Muggletonian treatise on astronomy. In 2010 I posted a poem which described, in perhaps unnecessary detail, a dream I had after consuming an immoral amount of turkey and ham at my brother and sister-in-law's place.

Here's something that might just possibly count as another Christmas dream-poem. I know that the lean and sometimes mean Frank Sargeson does poor service for Santas Claus, but, for me at least, his famous garden, with its shapely courgettes and blazing tomatoes, somehow symbolises the lushness and oppression of Auckland in summer, a season that really begins here at Christmas. I've had a couple of minor deadlines to meet lately, but I'm sparing a thought or two  for Alex Wild, who is not only trying to polish off a PhD on the sex lives of twentieth century Germans but also attempting to construct the next issue of the long-running, frequently chaotic literary journal brief out of a mass of submissions. I hope Alex made it out of her study for some ham today...

 The Hole that Frank Dug

The night before the deadline
I took the books to bed,
arranging them around me
the way a scared boy arrays his teddy bears
to guard against ghosts.

Each time I turned a page I yawned,
devouring the moths
that had lain there like typos.
At three or four o'clock I fell asleep
over a copy of the Collected Short Stories.

In the stippled light of a fifties summer
Frank was carrying a sack of chickenshit
on his back, whistling
as he went. He might have been hauling a boar
out of the bush block
on his uncle's farm.

Frank staggered around a minefield
of spuds and onions,
then emptied his sack
beside the half-finished hole.
He found his spade lying under the beanstalks
like a drunk. He dug.

 Half-forgetting my deadline
I crouched behind the beans,
crouched and listened
to the slow phrases
of that gravel-voiced spade.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Taking the Ark home

Over the past year or so this blog has documented the career of Paul Janman's movie Tongan Ark, from its first, experimental showing at the Auckland office of the New Zealand Film Archive through its screening in my lounge before a garrulous audience of palangi writers to its official premiere in front of a full house at the Auckland International Film Festival.

Late last month Paul Janman took the Ark home, to the campus of  'Atenisi Institute on the scruffy western fringes of Nuku'alofa. Paul's movie tells the story of the triumphs and travails of 'Atenisi and its visionary, disputatious founder Futa Helu, and many of the school's old boys and girls turned up to screenings in Niu Sila. For the 'Atenisians who remain in Tonga, though, the film had only existed as a series of reviews and a couple of clips on Vimeo.

Paul had intended to take Ark on a tour of several of Tonga's many islands in November, but logistical problems, including the apparent absence of a single movie screen in the Kingdom, forced him to postpone that venture. Determined to show his film at least in Tonga's capital city, Paul packed a movie projector and an old rolled-up advertising hoarding in his luggage, flew north, and, with the help of some students, hung his improvised screen off one of 'Atenisi's larger buildings.

For five nights in a row, Tongan Ark played under the stars on the 'Atenisi campus. Audiences unfolded deckchairs, or sprawled on the grass, or sat in their cars. One night Paul noticed a shiny vehicle with the number plate PM2, and observed Lord Tu'ivakano, Tonga's leader since the stolen election of 2010, sitting inside with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.

Paul sent me this message, along with some photos (click to expand them) from the Nuku'alofa screenings of Tongan Ark:

Here is a selection of images from the screening. There is one which shows me talking on screen because I showed a clip of the Auckland premiere performance and Q and A. Part way through someone turned on the lights behind and we could see the monster truck billboard on the back of the screen. There is another one which is quite extraordinary where some trees pop up over the arched walls behind the viewing audience - it almost looks like an island in a turquoise sea. Notice also the Prime Minister's gold Toyota Highlander in another shot.
Early next year Tongan Ark will island-hop from Tongatapu to Tahiti, and compete in the Pacific International Film Festival.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

From Masada to Matakaoa: three notes on Paul Celan and Vaughan Rapatahana

1. A remote location? 

During her talk at the recent launch of Celanie, a volume of Jack Ross' translations of poems by Paul Celan, Michele Leggott praised Ross and his publisher, Pania Press, for 'airlifting' Celan to New Zealand.

Leggott's metaphor can be interpreted in at least two ways. We airlift personnel and supplies to disaster zones - to villages surrounded by floodwaters, for instance, or to listing ships. But we also airlift people and precious objects out of disaster zones - we helicopter fishermen off wrecks, and sacred icons out of besieged cities.

Michele Leggott didn't explain whether Celan was a precious piece of literary equipment, being flown to a New Zealand in need, or whether his poetry was being evacuated from Europe to this end of the world. What her image of an airlift undeniably evoked, though, was a sense of distance. Whether New Zealand is a place of safety or a zone of distress, it is, the image insists, remote from Europe, and from the world of Celan's poetry.

Paul Celan was raised in a German-speaking household in Bukovina, before the Shoah killed his parents and destroyed the region's Jewish community. He settled in Paris in 1948, and lived there until his suicide in 1970. Celan was a polyglot, but he always wrote his poetry in the German language, despite or because of the terrible events of the 1940s.

Celan's poems evoke not only the Shoah but the wider history of Europe. They allude to other great European writers, like Osip Mandelstam and Rainer Maria Rilke. It is natural, given all this, that Celan might seem like a writer whose concerns are remote from us here in the South Pacific.
The subject matter and texture of Celan's writing might seem to exacerbate the sense of his remoteness from us, and indeed from all his readers. Because his works deal with such extreme events, and use such fragmented, intense language, many literary critics, and a few philosophers as well, have avoided treating him as anything so commonplace as a poet. Charles Bernstein has warned of the consequences of secluding Celan in this way:

Perhaps the greatest risk for the reading of Celan in our that we have venerated him, in the process of removing him not only from his own time and place, but also from our own poetic horizon. . . . [A] crippling exceptionalism has made his work a symbol of his fate rather than an active matrix for an ongoing poetic practice.

Underlying the view of Celan as a very unusual, perhaps incommensurable writer is the notion that the genocide the Nazis perpetrated against Jewry was an event completely unparalleled in human history. It would be wrong to deny the many unique features of the Shoah. The location of the genocide in Europe, the enormous resources devoted to the task, and the deliberate, calculating way in which death machines like Auschwitz operated - all of these were exceptional as well as terrible.

And yet there are many scholars who have found parallels between the Shoah and events in places distant from Europe during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In their recent books Hitler's Empire and "Exterminate All the Brutes", Mark Mazower and Sven Lindqvist argue convincingly that the Nazi conquest of Europe marked the irruption into the Old World of a violence that European powers had practiced for decades in their colonial possessions. In his passionate, precisely written book, Lindqvist showed that the dehumanising rhetoric of the Nazis echoed the discourse of colonial administrators in places like the Belgian Congo and German Namibia. Mazower documents Hitler's admiration for and envy of the British Empire, and shows how he dragged veterans of Germany's fin de siecle tropical empire out of retirement and put them in charge of swathes of Eastern Europe.
It would be very wrong, of course, to suggest that colonisation always involved genocide. The European acquisition of Africa, the Americas, much of Asia, and the Pacific was a long and uneven process, which involved many different strategies and produced widely differing outcomes. Here in the Pacific a single colonial power could behave very differently in different places, depending on its needs and on the situations it faced on the ground. France, for example, wiped out half of the indigenous population of New Caledonia and poured colonists into the territory, while at the same time running a low-profile, laissez-faire administration on the nearby islands of Wallis and Futuna.

Nor was the reaction of indigenous peoples to the coloniser always the same. Here in New Zealand some iwi, like Waikato, Atiawa and Tuhoe, resisted the invasion of their rohe and were expropriated, while others, like Ngati Porou, allied themselves with the expropriators and were able, through a mixture of cunning and luck, to hold most of their lands. No iwi suffered a fate as terrible as that of the Kanaks.

But qualifications like these should not stop us from recognising the links between colonisation and the machinery and ideology of genocide. If he were to turn his attention to New Zealand's colonial past, Sven Lindqvist would recognise the rhetoric of exasperated colonial politicians like Edward Traeger, who demanded the 'extermination' of recalcitrant Maori; the balmy predictions by pseudo-scientists like Ferdinand Hochstetter, who looked forward to the extinction of Maori; and the sinister talk about 'smoothing the pillow of a dying race' which became popular in late nineteenth century New Zealand, when the indigenous population was in temporary decline.

2. Drinking dirty water

In the 46th issue of the New Zealand literary journal brief, which was launched at the same time as Celanie, guest editor Bronwyn Lloyd has placed a poem by Vaughan Rapatahana directly before an essay by Jack Ross called 'Interpreting Paul Celan'. In 'he whatinga', which translated roughly as 'an escape', Rapatahana attacks the English language which his ancestors were obliged to learn during the colonisation of their rohe. Rapatahana calls English a 'hybrid bastard' tongue, which is incapable of expressing his thoughts and feelings:

with its preternatural
of spelling
and stupidities
of 'style'

In the essay that follows Rapatahana's poem Jack Ross discusses the difficulties that Paul Celan had in expressing himself in the German language. After the Shoah, Celan once said, language seemed like the only part of his heritage which was unbroken. It was a link to the extinguished world of pre-war Bukovina, and to the poet's beloved mother and father. But German had also been the language of the men who had killed Celan's parents, and deported Bukovina's Jews.
The famous obscurity of Celan's poems comes partly from his mistrust of the language in which they were written. Celan had a fuming desire to write, and perhaps hoped by writing to make some sort of sense of the traumas of his youth. At the same time, he feared that by setting down words and lines and stanzas in a contaminated language he was falsifying or dishonouring his experiences, and the experiences of his people. Celan was like a man lost in a desert who came across a pool of filthy water. He had to drink, but feared that the deep, desperate draughts he took might kill him. To read the poems in Celanie, with their gnomic images, oxymoronic maxims, strange neologisms, and dizzyingly sudden line-breaks, is to see Celan both slaking his thirst and sickening himself:

If one of these stones could
let us know
what keeps it silent
near the old man's Zimmer-frame
it would open like a wound
into which one dives
far from my voice
from all our redrafts

During his childhood in the 1960s, Vaughan Rapatahana attended schools where Maoritanga was a matter of indifference, if not contempt; as an adult, he has taught the Maori language in a series of schools and universities, and has argued aggressively for the importance of other Polynesian and Pacific languages. Rapatahana is one of the editors of English Language as Hydra, a new book in which a collection of anti-imperialist scholars berate the influence of English on their societies with a ferocity rarely encountered in academic texts.

Rapatahana's poems, which have been published in large numbers inside and outside New Zealand in recent years, are a mixture of elegy and invective. Even as he mourns whanau, friends, and old classmates who have suicided, taken up semi-permanent residence in prisons, or dedicated themselves to the harsh disciplines of alcoholism, the poet links these tragedies to the colonisation of his country in the nineteenth century, and to continuing indignities:

'typical bloody Maori'

she snitched,

of her kind:

'you don't look like a Maori'

her brazen
I protest...

didn't intuit



ready to rupture,

r e a c h   o u t

& strangle her
in irredentist fury...

And yet Rapatahana writes most of his poems in English, was awarded a PhD for a thesis on the massive oeuvre of Colin Wilson, the eccentric English mystic and novelist, and has, for the past few years, made a living teaching the hated English tongue to young Hong Kongers. Like Paul Celan, Vaughan Rapatahana is unwilling or unable to abandon the language he distrusts so intensely.
Rapatahana's tormented relationship with English is evident in the surfaces of the poems in his recent books Here, Away, Elsewhere and china as kafka. In his introduction to Home, Rapatahana says that his short, tight poems are 'an attempt to impose some form' on the 'massive chaos' of the world. A typical Rapatahana poem describes and discusses an experience concretely and rapidly, in lines that are rarely more than four syllables long. As he writes, Rapatahana frequently finds his feelings - his anger, his sadness, and sometimes his hope - chafing against his short lines. In apparent frustration, he begins to give words a bold type, or to capitalise them, or to tear them apart. Sometimes Rapatahana tries to make the shapes of his words embody their meanings. The letters of 'long-winded' are spaced out; the last letter of 'end' is capitalised. It is as though the poet is trying to break with language, and to communicate in some primordial and direct way with us.

Rapatahana has written often about his current life as an expatriate in China. Earlier New Zealand writers like James Bertram and RAK Mason reacted excitedly to China, seeing its vastness and wild complexity as a relief from the tight little towns of their homeland, but Rapatahana has found in the Middle Kingdom an elaboration of much that he detests about New Zealand. In the title poem of china as kafka he complains about the relentless brume/ of shale-shroud cities', and 'suited goons' who do the work of a neo-colonial gangster state, giving 'show trials/no trials' to ordinary Chinese who object to the theft of their land by mining companies and developers.

Bronwyn Lloyd's inspired juxtaposition of Rapatahana and Celan suggests new ways of reading both men. Instead of treating Celan as a poet sui generis, and a remote monument to a unique tragedy, we can perceive continuities between his work and that of an explicitly postcolonial writer like Vaughan Rapatahana. To say this is not to try to equate the lives and work of Rapatahana and Celan, or the colonisation of New Zealand with the imperialist rampages of Nazi Germany in 1940s Europe.

3. Fortresses and sieges

Neither Rapatahana nor Celan can ever take words or history for granted; both forsake the surface elegance and easy clarity that a more secure linguistic and cultural identity can give a writer. And yet there is a romantic strand in the poems of both men, a desire for security - personal, historical, linguistic - which is perhaps impossible. Celan and Rapatahana offer their readers symbols of safety and tranquility which stand like high islands above the storms of their texts.

Both poets celebrate territories which they believe offer sanctuary to their peoples. In a number of his later poems, Celan presented Israel, a nation he visited in 1969, as a site where Jewry could be saved and renewed. Celan was fascinated by Masada, the fortified rock where Jewish rebels had committed suicide en masse rather surrender to a Roman siege in 72 AD. When Israeli soldiers recaptured the Old City of Jerusalem during the Six Day War of 1967, Celan celebrated with a poem that invoked the ancient fort:

Imagine it:
Masada’s swamp soldier
hauling himself home
against the wire’s every thorn.

Imagine it:
the eyeless, the shapeless
rousing you to freedom
with their furious digging
until you strengthen
and rise.

Imagine it: your
own hand
has held a scrap
of earth,
more habitable, that
suffered upward again
into life.

Imagine it:
this was borne over to me —
a name awake, a hand awake
forever —
from the ones who will never be buried.

If Israel was the fortress of the Jewish people, then Masada was, for Celan, the fortress within the fortress. Its tragic history only seemed, in some mysterious way, to reinforce its inviolability.
Vaughan Rapatahana's sanctuary is the East Coast of Te Ika a Maui, where Te Whanau a Apanui and Ngati Porou have held most of their land, and the Maori language is still often heard in pubs and churches and at cattle sales. Although he lacks close blood ties to Ngati Porou, Rapatahana has bought a house in Te Araroa, a small town built where a gravel road turns off to the East Cape. In a comment on Reading the Maps, he explained that:

I also believe there are already semi-autonomous 'Maori states' anyway - Matakaoa [the district around the East Cape] and Urewera are just two examples - which is why my kainga is Te Araroa! Koro Dewes was never joking when he said there should be toll gates at the entry points up to the East Coast!

If the East Coast is Vaughan Rapatahana's fortress, the place of safety and beauty he counterposes with the chaos and ugliness of the wider world, then Whetumatarau, the mountain that stands over Te Araroa, is the fortress within his fortress.
Pressure from contending tectonic plates pushed Whetumatarau out of the Pacific, and the mountain's cliffs are sown with the fossils of vast extinct sea creatures. The pa on the summit of Whetumatarau was considered impregnable; any army trying to take it would have had to advance on its knees, in single file, up a crumbling parody of a track. Ngati Porou hapu from up and down the East Coast would shelter on Whetumatarau during wartime, and in 1821 hundreds of fighters and civilians took refuge there from Hongi Hika's fleet of musket-waving raiders. Rather than storm Whetumatarau, Hika pretended to retreat back up the coast, then slaughtered his enemies when they had deserted the safety of their pa.

For Rapatahana, Whetumatarua is a symbol of invulnerability and of cultural pride. In china as kafka, he juxtposes a tribute to the 'elemental.../ embedded inviolate' mountain with an account of a visit to the 'sagging...stuttered stone' known as Angkor Wat. Whereas Whetumatarau is pure and impregnable, the tourist-ridden, pockmarked Angkor Wat is a depraved place, both 'phallic' and impotent, self-aggrandising and violated.
There is irony in Celan's celebrations of Israel and Masada and Rapatahana's odes to the East Coast and Whetumatarau. The Israelis took control of Masada in a war which deprived another people, the Palestinians, of much of their rohe; Ngati Porou, the iwi Rapatahana idealises, fought with the Pakeha invaders of Aotearoa against more recalcitrant tribes.

Paul Celan did not live long enough to reflect on the wars Israel would fight after 1967, and the transformation of a nation founded as a sanctuary from colonial violence into a colonial power. Vaughan Rapatahana, the English-hating English teacher and anti-imperialist idealiser of a kupapa iwi, will have to deal with some of his contradictions in the years ahead. We should look forward to the next book from this difficult and important poet.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Paperback writer

EP Thompson was passionate about democratising culture and education. In his decade as a half as an employee of the Workers Education Association Thompson travelled relentlessly through Yorkshire, giving lectures in pokey halls to miners and housewives who had just come off their shifts. Thompson later quit a cushy job teaching history at the University of Warwick because he had tired of the more absurd aspects of academic life. Whether he was writing about English peasant and working class life, Romantic poetry, or the Cold War, Thompson always hoped to reach a popular audience. His hopes were not always disappointed: the monumental, incorrigibly exciting The Making of the English Working Class has been reprinted dozens of times since its first appearance fifty years ago.

You'll understand, given all this, why I felt slightly embarrassed that The Crisis of Theory, the study of Thompson's work which Manchester University press published for me last year, has retailed for ninety-two dollars. I don't blame Manchester for this steep price: they are in the twenty-first century book trade, and in the twenty-first century hardcover books are not cheap to produce. All the same, I have tended to advise folks who have asked about my book to head to a library, and to see if they can track it down or order it there (many thanks, by the way, to Auckland City Libraries, which isn't obliged to buy up obscure and expensive academic tomes, for shelling out for some copies of The Crisis of Theory, and for displaying one of them in a choice spot close to the checkout desk of their central Auckland branch. Auckland City Libraries have also been very generous in their purchases of other books I've been associated with: I was delighted to see, for instance, that they're currently stocking ten copies of the selection of Futa Helu's essays On Tongan Poetry which I co-edited earlier this year).

I hope that EP Thompson would approve of Manchester University Press' decision this month to publish a paperback edition of The Crisis of Theory, which will trade at a far more reasonable price than its predecessor. This page at the MUP website announces the paperback edition, while this one offers an abstract of each of the book's chapters.
While I'm talking about the economics of books, I should give an update on the fate of the hundreds of volumes donated to Tonga's noble but impoverished 'Atenisi Institute earlier this year, in response to an appeal made on this blog and through the literary journal brief.

As a result of the 'Atenisi book drive I've developed a new obsession. Some supporters of 'Atenisi gave me a few dollars, in lieu of donations of books, and I decided to spend their dosh on bargain volumes. I soon discovered that Auckland, with its scores of op shops, continual garage sales, and regular charity book fairs, is a paradise for hunters of cheap books. I've always been a habitue of secondhand bookshops, but over the past few months I've begun to hang out in tumbledown carports and Sally Army warehouses. Where once I happily shelled out fifteen or twenty dollars for a prized book, now I haggle bitterly with old nuns if I'm asked to spend more than a buck on a volume by Updike or Moorcock.

In the three or four months since the 'Atenisi appeal I've added hundreds of books to the pile of donated volumes. Many of my additions are in near-pristine condition, and all of them are - I hope - relevant to the courses the institution is offering next year. What I like best of all is that Skyler can't reprimand me for disappearing from the house for hours on end and spending money, because I'm doing it all for charity. (If only I could booze for charity...)
We'll be heading up to 'Atenisi in mid-February with the books, and installing them in the school's library, which is being moved from a notorious old wooden structure that stands over a deep swamp - for years now, visitors have reputedly been able to glimpse alarmingly large carp between gaps in its greening floorboards - to a relatively new concrete building.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Apologies to Vaughan; congrats to brief and to Tusi Tamasese

I assured several people, including a man with the initials VR, that a review of Vaughan Rapatahana's fascinating new volumes Home, Away, Elsewhere and china as kafka was going to appear here this week. The review hasn't, in fact, turned up, thanks to a bout of ill-health and to the skills of Bronwyn Lloyd, the editor of the latest issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief.

With the insight and subtlety of the best editors, Bronwyn juxtaposed a poem by Vaughan with an essay by Jack Ross about Paul Celan when she compiled brief 46. Called 'he whatinga', Vaughan's poem laments the fact that its author 'can't exist' in the 'hybrid bastard' of the English language. As though to prove the point that he can't express himself properly in an English-language poem, Vaughan adds a footnote to his text:

give me a flexible language language, with sensible words, give, give, give me an escape from this prison of English 

As Jack explains in the essay which follows Vaughan's poem, Paul Celan was a man tormented by the fact that he could only write poetry in German, the language of the nation that during World War Two invaded his homeland of Romania and destroyed his family. Bronwyn's inspired juxtaposition made me see that the broken syntax, serrated lines, and neologisms which are part of both Celan's and Rapatahana's work have similar justifications. Both men have struggled to express themselves in a language they distrust. I decided to rewrite my review of Vaughan's books, so as to bring out the unexpected parallels with Celan. Health and nappy changing duties permitting, I hope to post my overdue review here early next week. Apologies Vaughan! Ae e fakapikopiko!
The good news is that brief is set to push on towards its half-century, thanks to a grant of five thousand two hundred dollars announced this week by Creative New Zealand. The grant, which follows similar contributions in 2010 and 2011, won't make anybody wealthy, but it does give brief's heroic managing editor Michael Arnold a chance to balance the books, and it allows Alex Wild, who is at this very moment preparing the 47th issue of the journal, to be paid a small but symbolic fee.

Regular readers of this blog may recognise Alex as the wunderkid who, in the first quarter century of her life, managed to write a Masters' thesis about Samoan history, publish a very fine novel about frustrated Bohmenian love in inner-city Auckland, and begin a PhD thesis about the sex lives of twentieth century Germans. Alex also finds time to post witty messages on social media, and she left this appeal for contributions to brief 47 on Facebook:

Don't forget, all you genius friends of mine - I'm accepting contributions for the issue of Brief which I'm guest-editing. Stories, poems, essays, experiments, drawings, whatever. I'm calling the whole issue 'The Mid City Arcade Project' and a whole bunch of rad submissions are already in and I'm excited cos it's all starting to look like the components of a pretty sweet collation of papers you'd like to keep in your room for a long time and then someone will steal it at a cool party you one day decide to host in your room and you'll be bummed out but generally ok cos at least distribution is important with things on bits of paper. You can and should email submissions to me at

Unless you get those submissions in quickly you may miss Alex's deadline, but they can always be saved for the eyes of the editor of issue no. 48, who has not, so far as I am aware, been appointed. I hear Ross Taylor is looking for some low-stress work over the next few months.

As a lover of Samoa, Alex Wild would have been delighted by Tusi Tamasese's string of victories at the New Zealand Film Awards last week. Tamasese's The Orator is much more than an affecting drama about an outsider's attempt to claim the place he deserves in a labyrinthine social order: it is one of the very first films to draw on the storehouse of ancient concepts which together make up the intellectual horizon of Western Polynesia, and which were repressed for more than a century by colonial administrators and certain well-meaning but Eurocentric ethnographers.

In recent decades important Pacific intellectuals like Epeli Hau'ofa, Futa Helu and 'Okusitino Mahina have called for the recovery and theorising of the old world-view. Hau'ofa insisted that the Pacific was too often seen as a waste of water, rather than a highway between complex civilisations; Helu contrasted the collectivism of traditional Tongan art with what he considered the excessive individualism of Romantic and existentialist European art; Mahina has written about the importance of concepts like 'uta, or inland space, in traditional thinking.

Tusi Tamasese has very gracefully adapted this sort of theorising to cinema. By refusing ever to turn his cameras on the sea, he has broken with the colonialist view of the Pacific as a series of sandy beaches, and made audiences feel both the complexity and occasional claustrophobia of the universe of rural Samoa. By shunning close-ups in favour of shots of groups of actors, he has broken with the cult of the individual hero which is such a part of modern Western art, and emphasised instead the primacy of the social. By forsaking the frenetic cuts and pointless action of twenty-first century Hollywood, he has slowed his movie to a pace that is hypnotic rather than soporific, and given audiences a taste of the different way time and space are constructed in the hinterlands of Western Polynesia, where what EP Thompson famously called the 'work-discipline' of 'industrial capitalism' has never properly been imposed.

To find a film which can compare to The Orator, we have to turn to John O'Shea's Runaway, which premiered all the way back in 1964. By discovering a way of putting the New Zealand landscape on celluloid, and in the process junking the unsuitable models which earlier auteurs like Rudall Hayward had used, O'Shea opened up territory which the best subsequent Kiwi film makers have been able to explore and adumbrate. The Orator does for Western Polynesia what O'Shea did for the Shaky Isles.
Another important film set in Western Polynesia, Paul Janman's Tongan Ark, has also received praise over the past few days. Tongan Ark tells the story of the 'Atenisi Institute, the independent-minded school sited on the swampy fringe of Nuku'alofa, and last week it was shown repeatedly at the Institute, to audiences which reputedly included the Prime Minister of Tonga and his retinue.

At the same time that was Janman was projecting his movie onto a screen improvised from the back of an old banner, Giovanni Tiso, who saw Tongan Ark at Wellington's film festival Wellington a few months ago, was writing a review for the website of the venerable Australian cultural journal Overland. Futa Helu founded 'Atenisi after returning to a quiescent Tonga from Sydney University filled with classical philosophy and the contrarian impulses of the Scots-Aussie academic gadfly John Anderson. Now, almost half a century later, is the spirit of critical thinking and critical education returning to Australia from Tonga?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Christian zeal, and Queen Victoria's space programme

I've spent most of the past twenty-four hours in bed with nerve pain, courtesy of the venerable injury that has been one of the more tedious recurring themes of this blog. When I'm in this state I tend to avoid the mainstream media - self-pity and irritability are a combustible enough combination, without being spiced with self-righteous outrage at the philistinism and complacency this country's newspaper editorialists exude. Foolishly, though, I stole a look at this morning's New Zealand Herald, which carries a story about the persecution of a small girl by a Bible in Schools instructor:

A couple who took their daughter out of a school class based on the Bible were dismayed to find her left alone in a classroom "naughty corner" with a book during the 35-minute lesson...Jeff McClintock posted a photograph of his 7-year-old daughter Violet on the Secular Education Network Facebook page showing the little girl kneeling on the floor next to a rubbish bin...When he arrived one day to check on her he found her in the corner children are sent to for being naughty.

I'm a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, but I can't deny that Christianity, along with the other great world religions, has produced some superbly erudite and subtle thinkers. What a pity that the ideas of St Augustine, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Updike and Nathan Parry never seem to feature in New Zealand's benighted Bible in Schools programme. When I was at Drury School back in the eighties, the volunteers who traipsed in to make us sing hymns and say prayers were a mixture of fanatics, neurotics, misogynists, and good old-fashioned psychotics. One of them told us that babies who bothered their parents by crying too often deserved to be beaten; another, who had apparently never read St Augustine, insisted on the literal truth of the Book of Genesis, and topped that act of stupidity by denying the theory of evolution.

The most loveably mad pulpit bully of all was Mister Chick, whom I saluted in this poem. After the poem was published in Landfall, a few people asked me whether Mister Chick was, like, really real. He was.

At the recent launch of Bronwyn Lloyd's excellent issue of brief I bumped into the great Kiwi-Samoan - he prefers the term Kamoan - painter Andy Leleisi'uao. I know that 'bumped' long ago became a loose, rather lazy label for any sort of unexpected meeting, but my encounter very nearly returned the verb to its primordial sense: I was so excited to see the Blakean creator of the Ufological villages of Sepataua and Maevaeua walk into the room that I shivered, staggered, and almost fainted all over him.
When I had steadied my gait, if not my voice, I asked Andy about the threats he sometimes receives from religious zealots. Was it true that his very first exhibition, in the western suburbs of Sydney a decade and a half ago, had almost been trashed by visitors outraged by a canvas festooned with the legend ALL SAMOAN MINISTERS ARE WANKERS? Yes, Andy replied, in his soft, saintly voice. The trouble, he added, has continued. The recent Immigrant Mind retrospective at Auckland's Wallace Gallery, which featured a portrait of a priest with an enormous power socket on his forehead, has hardly placated the Leleisi'uao-haters. I think that the discussion of Andy Leleisi'auo's art should be made a compulsory part of any Bible in Schools programme.
Here's a somewhat Ufological poem I wrote last night, after ingesting unhealthy quantities of painkillers. It is supposed to be part of a long, silly sequence called 'Urban Legends'. I figure that if Matthew Dentith's latest bunch of conspiracy theorists can send a teenage Obama to Mars then I can fire Augustus Pugin at the moon.

An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture on the Moon (for Andy Leleisi'uao)

We’ve been on the moon
since 1851. To outwit the Habsburgs
and Tsar Alexander, the Victorians disguised their scientists
as architects, their rocket programme
as cathedral construction.

Pugin launched St Chad’s from Birmingham
and planted it three weightless days later
on Mare Ingenii, the Sea
of Cleverness. Lord Russell locked him in Bedlam
when he tried to write a Treatise
about lunar design.

The moon, Pugin knew,
was an alien spacecraft.
The rocky outer coating,
he wrote, is camouflage,
like the skin of a crocodile
or the roof of a turtle.
The moon’s craters were
the accursed work of a classicist 
who inverted the domes of St Peters
and St Pauls. The moon’s orbit,
Pugin noted, was preprogrammed.
So is its descent.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]