Felix Quail, the multiverse, and other real delusions
Rachel uses facebook to try to maintain her connection with the civilised world, and it was on facebook that Rachel and I discussed Felix Quail, a character that I have invented while working on the film with Paul. In the following transcript Rachel’s comments are given in bold type.]
We’ve made a lot of progress on the film over the last week, creating a fictional character called Felice Quail. Felice is a descendant of an older, weirder, somewhat discredited character named Felix Quail, who served as an operator at Pandora Radar Station in Spirits Bay during World War Two, and became obsessed with the idea that the signals he was sending out were interfering with the movement of souls over Cape Reinga towards the underworld. As they helped themselves down the cliff at the end of the island, using the branches of the ancient pohutakawa tree that stood there, the dead would be blasted with radar.
I don't think you need to invent a character - just ask around - people will throw their invented/embroidered histories at you.
The radar technicians of World War Two were taught to identify the 'fingerprints' of enemy operators, by attending carefully to the information and distortion that poured through their primitive machines. Quail, who had been raised in a small spiritualist church, started to believe that, as he manned his machine through long stormy nights at Spirits Bay, he was getting signals from the dead, or the not-yet-living.
At the risk of repeating myself, again with the too much screen time! Lack of sleep is responsible for many invasions...I think you risk losing the authority of the factual material if you Jenner it up too much.
Quail was invalided out of the army and sent to Tokanui mental hospital to 'recover'. There he met a man who was to change his life - a bloke who was called Len Dalgety by the nurses and doctors who unsympathetically attended to him, but who insisted that he was really Kereopa Latu, a Tongan-Maori diplomat for the Federated Nations of Polynesia.
It's like Pat Barker's Regeneration, and then some.
Latu claimed that he had been living in a world where Maori had won the battle of Rangiriri and the rest of the New Zealand Wars, and had established, with the help of the kingdoms of Tonga and Hawaii, a Polynesian federation that kept colonists out of most of the Pacific. A few years after the victory at Rangiriri, the Paris Commune had led to revolutions across Europe and the establishment of a socialist federation there.
In Latu's world, capitalism and imperialism were only practiced by a relatively isolated United States. Aotearoa had its capital in Ngaruawahia, and its diplomats and journalists liked to point to a small and quiescent Pakeha population and boast about their country’s enlightened race relations. Latu had sent many years representing the Polynesian federation in European cities. One morning, though, he woke up and found himself in a world where Maori had been defeated in the nineteenth century and marginalised in the twentieth, and where he was employed as a fencer on a dairy farm outside Morrinsville.
Utopian. Until the end.
Latu's story convinces Quail, who has been spending his leave days reading William James, as well as heterodox medieval thinkers like Grosseteste and Giordano Bruno, that we must live in a sort of multiverse, where there are many different timestreams. The signals Quail was picking up at Spirits Bay came from another stream. Quail has the uncanny sense that he is living in the 'wrong' reality, where history has taken a wrong turn or two.
Quail made me think of this.
One day Latu disappears from Tokanui’s secure ward. The nurses and doctors tell Quail that his friend has jumped in the nearby Puniu River, that old boundary between the remnants of the Waikato Kingdom and colonialism, and drowned: Quail knows better. Latu has found a way back to his own timestream. Quail is almost unbearably envious.
We all have our boundaries and envy the freedoms we perceive others to have. Yet the freedoms we know we have, we refuse to share.
After his release from hospital, Quail begins to study, in a chaotic but enthusiastic manner, both the doctrines of modern physics and Polynesian legends about 'otherworlds' like Hawai’iki and Pulotu. He decides that portals to other timestreams can be found at the sites of fateful historical events. These places have become liminal and fragile.
Quail decides that the Great South Road is a likely site for 'portals', because it was the route made for the army that invaded the Waikato, and the site of several battles, including the seminal clash at Rangiriri. He begins to go up and down the road, pestering truckies and bus drivers with enquiries. He wants to know whether they have seen the ghostly activity that many Polynesian cultures associate with portals to otherworlds.
There are many ghost stories that regular travellers on the Great South Road and Highway One like to share; Quail collects them. He also begins to examine old photographs of the road and its environs. In the images made by the soldier-photographer William Temple, who marched down the Great South Road to war in 1863, Quail finds eerie blurs and fissures that might be evidence of extraordinary forces.
In terms of having a framework for the film, I like it, but isn't it just another Euro-myth you're bunging into a cultural archive already pummelled with Pakeha jaunts of fantasy?
Quail begins to self-publish pamphlets outlining his theories, and invites support from the public. Gradually, through the process that Lenin described as 'the primitive accumulation of cadre', he assembles a circle of followers, and founds an organisation called the Taskforce for the Investigation of Paranormal Activity on Highway One, or TIPAHO.
It's getting a bit 1980s.
It is the '80s by now! The elderly Quail and his followers cruise and film the road. They hand out leaflets urging members of the public to assist their 'objective scientific investigation'.
The activities of TIPAHO resemble those of Bruce Cathie and his followers in the '70s and '80s. Cathie acquired a cult international following after claiming, in a series of cryptic books, to have discovered a sort of energy grid formed by secret military bases and super-powerful ‘harmonic’ transmitters around Auckland. Cathie found transmitters in the Waikateres and also in suburban Auckland, and he linked these devices to a series of curious events, including an explosion at a factory in Avondale. After performing a series of inscrutable calculations using the ‘new science of harmonics’, Cathie declared that a UFO had crashed and exploded at the factory while doing repair work on Auckland's grid.
Cathie and his followers produced some blurry photos of UFOs, which have curious similarities to the images made by William Temple with his collodion plate camera.
The UFO resembles the light fitting of my old driving intructor's smallest room.
It’s both disturbing and inspiring to know that Cathie actually existed.
It fell off the ceiling, broke his toilet bowl yet remained intact. Disturbing and inspiring. My personal feeling, and the thing that's halted progress on my Great South Road poem, is that I think there are enough Pakeha trampling on that road.
Quail is preoccupied with the 1940s as well as the 1860s, and he begins to research some of the more esoteric aspects of New Zealand's war effort. He finds in Nicky Hager's marvellously detailed account of signals intelligence and secret radar stations during World War Two confirmation of his belief that the stations were intended partly to 'jam' transmissions from other timestreams, and thereby prevent inhabitants of other streams crossing over into our own.
Those ghosts, they aren't Cathie's, or ours.
Quail becomes preoccupied with the Guide Platoons founded in 1941, when NZ's political and military establishments were terrified by the Japanese advance south through the Pacific. The members of this enigmatic organisation, which is mentioned tersely and tantalisingly in Nancy Taylor’s massive history of the New Zealand Home Front, were recruited from amongst the ranks of the possumskinners and deerhunters who stalked NZ's backcountry. They were instructed to build secret bases, complete with radar and radio gear, in the bush and hills, and to prepare to wage guerrilla war.
The mist is thick.
A group of Guide Platooners was sent to reconnoitre the ancient forests of the Pureora Ranges in the centre of Te Ika a Maui. As they tramped around the isolated mountain of Titiraupenga, they came across a small clearing made by an earlier band of guerrilla fighters. In the clearing was a ruined marae. Inside the marae was a chest of rotten wood. Inside the chest was one of the battle flags Te Kooti carried through the bush (this stuff is all, or almost, true).
These Platooners were out of contact with New Zealand's towns and cities, and were mindful that a Japanese invasion may already have taken place. They were thrown back suddenly into the 1860s - they had become, like Te Kooti and his band, indigenes sheltering in the forest from an invader. Quail became obsessed with this obscure episode in World War Two history, and came to see it as an example of the way that Pakeha could be redeemed and relieved of their status as invaders and appropriators.
Quail decided, then, that New Zealand could only be saved by its destruction. Pakeha could only form a true attachment to the soil they had appropriated, and a true sense of nationhood, if they were confronted by an invader. Just as the European threat had created a Maori nation in the 19th century, as organisations like the Kingitanga were formed by formerly fissiparous iwi, so a progressive Pakeha nation could be founded.
How does xenophobia redeem them? Oh, here are some more people we hate because, um, we're racist, so let's hide - ah, now we know how Pakeha made Maori feel. Great.
Quail resolved to recruit an army from another timestream and throw it though a portal onto the Great South Road, so that it could march on Auckland.
Did he not think to just tootle off down a portal? Would've been a shorter story.
He has moved away from individual escapism towards a collectivist solution to New Zealand’s problems. That’s the po-faced answer to your question.
Yes, he's cooking with gas. This is like the "Pope in the pool" lesson in exposition. I hope the twelve people following this post are reading all of these comments! Sit up, kids! Is that The End? OMG, Scott Hamilton's been sucked through a portal! NZ is SAVED!
I lost a heap of comments!
I was quoting the Northumbrian (psycho)geographer Alastair Bonnet, who believes that many people in Western societies suffer from a nostalgia for the future: from a sense that some tremendous possibility has somehow been lost over the past century and a half. I believe that this tendency is especially strong on the left: we look back at dates like 1871, and 1918, and 1985, and see history hitting an oil slick and skidding, when it should have been accelerating to a paradisal destination.
What if the Paris Commune spread to London and Berlin? What if Rosa Luxemborg had wound up as chancellor rather than a martyr? What if Scargill had bested Thatcher? And what if the Waikato Kingdom, with its fields of wheat and orchards and fleet of schooners and burgeoning villages where Polynesian and European cultural influences were becoming intertwined and complementary, had not been visited by fire in 1863? I think that Felix Quail dramatises, in his delusions, this sense of living in a world that has somehow gone wrong, in a reality that is obscurely counterfeit...
As David Attenborough said, "It may look like paradise, but living here is not easy". I don't think there's a possibility of paradise. More of what Danny Dorling terms a "possibilist" maybe...? I'm interested in collectivism.
Quail spends his last years holding court amidst his small and shrinking group of followers. He boasts of his ability to travel through portals to other timestreams, describes the wonders of his old friend Kereopa's world, and emphasises how heroic he is to remain in our tawdry, counterfeit timestream. Quail also likes to boast, after a few too many cups of kava, a drink he has ostentiously adopted, that he is planning to bring an army through a portal to correct the course of New Zealand history.
Kava has a lot to answer for.
Utopia seems a permanent temptation for humans, a comfort as well as an irritation. Or is utopia, in its modern sense, simply an outgrowth of Judeo-Christian culture, with its teleology that sends a degenerate world hurtling towards an eschatology that combines dystopian torment, under the reign of the antichrist, and utopian fulfilment, in the kingdom of Christ?
Is it a degenerate world, though?
During a public discussion of Paul Janman's Tongan Ark, Eve Coxon claimed that Futa Helu was devoid of utopianism, and suggested that this was one of the strengths of the man. And scholars like Niel Gunson have argued that in non-Western cultures, like the culture of ancient Tonga, there was no sense of the forward movement of time, no scythe-wielding gardener to disturb Marvell's sensual enjoyment of life, and hence no need for notions of a perfected reality...
Belief systems are tricky. I think that our stories are the fabric of civilisation, and if we tell positive stories, where people come together to work collectively, then it will filter.
But we seem unable to outgrow the notion of a better, or indeed worse, world. Modernity has, I think, a teleological sense of history as one of its core conditions.
It's a kind of arrogance - a narcissism, the desire to control or at least set in motion structures for the future.
When Quail's car is found in Muriwai Stream, which flows through the isolated Limestone Country north of Raglan before entering an exhausted Waikato River close to the Tasman, the police decide that he must have crashed and drowned. But they find no body.
Quails can fly - bumblingly so, but they're wick.
I was going to suggest that the cops found his car, but not his body, and that his followers chose to believe that he had not died, but had instead followed his old friend Kereopa into a better world. Sentimental, I know.
I think you should have left it hanging, definitely.
Give me an alternate ending!
Quail, it turns out, was not Quail at all, but Darwin, come back via a host body to say he messed up, and that his Origins was never meant to make folk pit one against t'other for supremacy of species, but that he didn't start it.
I think Quail would be a Lamarckian rather than a Darwinist.
I think Quail's story demonstrates beautifully an intractable paradox, the Gordian knot that is both collectivism and individualism and everything in-between. Once you accept there's no end to tug at, you see there's no end to hold on to, and you either run around like a scalextric car, or you let go.
You raise a very legitimate concern when you ask 'In terms of having a framework for the film, I like it, but isn't it just another Euro-myth you're bunging into a cultural archive already pummelled with Pakeha jaunts of fantasy?' I suppose one way I could respond is by pointing out that the notion that history somehow took a wrong and perverse turn in the nineteenth century, and that an alternate reality should be summoned up as a counterexample to the status quo, has been a part of Maori nationalist discourse in recent decades.
Hone Harawira, and earlier Donna Awatere in her influential book Maori Sovereignty, have conjured up a Maori Golden Age that supposedly existed before colonisation. This myth echoes hoary English notions of a Norman Yoke. I think though that the real Golden Age occurred in the 1850s and early '60s, when the Waikato Kingdom arguably showed how European and Polynesian cultures could intertwine and complement one another. Peria, I think, is New Zealand's equivalent of the Paris Commune, bathetic as that may sound. I think that, like the Commune, is was a working model of an alternate and superior society.
I have a problem with the word "superior".
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]