Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The inescapable politics of rocks

When Paul Janman flew to Wales recently he thought he was leaving behind, for a few weeks at least, the politics of rocks. 

As he worked with me on a book and a film about Auckland's Great South Road, Janman had spent hours in the Bombay Hills, on the southern edge of Auckland, where a handful of rocks sit on a strip of land between the road and the newer southern motorway. 

For geologists, these rocks are the unexceptional, randomly positioned detritus of an ancient volcanic eruption. For a set of right-wing political activists and conspiracy theorists, though, the rocks are known as the 'Bombay Obelisk'. According to Martin Doutre, the author of a frequently baffling tome called Ancient Celtic New Zealand, the obelisk was an ancient astronomy, and its carvings of snakes and runes  offer dramatic and irrefutable evidence that a technologically sophisticated European civilisation had established itself in New Zealand many thousands of years ago. 

Doutre's opinion has been publicised loudly and persistently by the Franklin E Local, a giveaway magazine published a few kilometres from the obelisk in Pukekohe. When Maori TV ran an investigation into the Celtic New Zealand theory and the links between its proponents and the neo-Nazi and criminal fraternities, Doutre brought reporter Iulia Leilua to the obelisk, so she could have a firsthand experience of the glories of this country's ancient white culture. 

Because we believe that history is made with fantasies and hallucinations, as well as facts and artefacts, Paul and I are devoting some of our book and film to the strange story of the Bombay obelisk. Paul and cinematographer Ian Powell have taken photographs and shot footage of the obelisk and its environs, and last year they showed off some of these images at the Papakura Art Gallery. 

Paul and I have in the past linked Martin Doutre and other proponents of the Celtic New Zealand theory with the anxiety many Pakeha Kiwis feel about their place in the world. Thousands of miles from their European motherland, surrounded by alien flora and the earthworks of ancient Maori pa, some Pakeha have sought comfort in imaginary histories that grant them indigenity. 

When Paul Janman reached the imperial motherland recently, though, he made a disconcerting discovery. After crossing the world, he'd found himself witness to another angry argument about another group of stones. Here's a message Paul sent me, shortly after arriving in the land of his ancestors:

Bore da Scott, (Good morning in Welsh...)

I am in remotest Wales and the most exciting thing that has happened to me this week is finding myself in the middle of a local archaeological conflagration over whether or not the inner circle of bluestone at Stonehenge came from ancient quarries near our village. Some English archaeologists have suggested they do (I saw them talk at a pub tonight) and they have baited the local Welsh nationalists with the thought that this may be evidence for an early Welsh invasion of England! This thesis is hotly contested by a local intellectual who also makes candles up the road in the Gwaun valley. Our village is called Newport, Pembrokeshire. The Welsh name is 'Trefdreath'. The purported quarries can be seen here. This site is about 6km southeast of our village. 

This guy is the main dissenter against the theory stones that came from here. Either way, the controversy has given me great food for thought about my personal relationship to these ancient rock outcrops as well as to crackpots like Doutre and even the movement of stones from Uvea to Tonga. Attached is a picture of me and our ancestral mountain Mynedd Carningli - the Mountain of Angels - quite a weird and exciting place that I am filming avidly. 
Hwyl fawr am nawr (pronounced 'huel vawur am nawur', it means goodbye for now).

It is not hard to imagine a political context for the arguments Paul reports. Wales' pro-independence party Plaid Cymru took nearly a fifth of the votes at the last election to the country's assembly, and has been encouraged by the recent massive gains of Scotland's nationalists. Like their Scottish counterparts, the Welsh nationalists argue that England has for centuries dominated its Celtic neighbours in the British Isles. The nationalists' critics consider this sentimental nonsense, and charge that, far from being English colonies, Wales and Scotland have been equal partners in the United Kingdom and were equal partners in the British Empire.

Stonehenge was built four and a half thousand years ago, long before either England or Wales existed as cultural or political units. The monument nevertheless seems to have been drafted into arguments about Welsh and English history and identity. The defenders of Britain seem to want to discredit claims that the Welsh were a victimised people by suggesting that the ancient Celts were ranging aggressively over what is now England, and raising expensive monuments there. For their part, some Weslh nationalists seem offended by the notion that their very distant ancestors might have been primitive imperialists.

It is easy to see parallels between the attempts to use Stonehenge against the Welsh and the way that right-wing Pakeha use the notion of an ancient white civilisation against Maori. According to the likes of Doutre, the European colonists who supposedly thrived in New Zealand for thousands of years were eventually conquered, enslaved, and eaten by the ancestors of Maori. Far from being a people victimised by Euroepan imperialism, then, Maori are, in Doutre's strange universe, the imperialist victimisers of Europeans.

The anti-Welsh and anti-Maori arguments I've been discussing rely on some ironic assumptions. Both suppose, for example, that conquest and colonisation are bad things. But a century ago, during the era of British eminence that many opponents of Maori and Welsh nationalism idealise, wars of conquest and colonisation were seen as virtuous, and perhaps even divinely ordained, events. For Cecil Rhodes or William Massey, the alleged victories of ancient Celts and Maori would have counted in those peoples' favour, not against them. Imperialism and militarism became such compromised ideologies in the second half of the twentieth century that even reactionaries like Martin Doutre now attach their arguments to narratives of victimhood.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

I think that in Britain most people realise that it is all nonsense about things that happened 4000 years ago. The "baiters" of course might be exciting the English and the Welsh nationalists. Nationalism is one of the worst of diseases.

10:25 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Well, if I belonged to the culture that produced Alun Lewis and RS Thomas and that gorgeous flag with the dragon on it, then i might feel nationalistic too, Richard!

Alun Lewis' centenary has just been celebrated (in low-key fashion) in Wales, btw:

I was hoping Carey Davies might have something to say about all this, actually. He's a British Marxist with a love of Wales and a strong aversion to Welsh nationalism.

10:23 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes I remember you and I 'discovered' Lewis at about the same time. I liked the short poems whereas you were big on that last, long poem he wrote. I certainly agree that he is one of the great poets.

I liked David Jones of 'In Parenthesis' which in excerpts I cobbled for parts of the IP...but I didn't get so much into 'Anathemata'. I must give it another go.

I would add Dylan Thomas of course. And for that matter Anthony Hopkins the actor. I recall Burton and Taylor in 'The Taming of the Shrew' but I was not that impressed overall by Taylor's supposed glamorousness: but she and Burton were great actors indeed as in things such as 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' and Albee's 'Who'se Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

I like Albee's plays by the way and that play / movie reminds me of possibly my favourite film / play 'A Street Car Named Desire' especially the Vivian Leigh with Marlon Brando. I've watched that and read it several times. I believe that the original Broadway actress was even better as Blanche in that...

But re Welsh poets, as I read about Gillian Clarke in Sarah Brooms book 'Contemporary British and Irish Poetry' which talks about Clarke, I picked up 'Ten Anglo-Irish Poets' ed. by Sam Adams. I have no doubt more Anglo-Welsh poetry has been published since then in anthologies.

Is Welsh spoken anywhere in Wales these days?

I think the Powys brothers were not Welsh but lived there...

I feel that most English people, who are more or less enlightened, have no problem with the Welsh or Welsh nationalism. I have and English background but how far back that goes I have no idea.

As to nationalism, it still worries me. I think it is for adolescents and people who lack inner confidence. We are all human.

When I saw that Robert Sullivan put that he was part Irish and of Nga Puhi descent on the back of his poetry book, and Leggott at the Launch of his first book talked about how a woman friend of hers had seen his picture and said; 'Wow! A good looking poet!' I knew that I was well behind the finishing line, with my ugly dial and boring provenance or background, so on my 'Singing in the Slaughterhouse' book my creditors (the very few who were my fans, many, coincidentally, called by my second name as it transpired) said, apart from the fact that "Richard Taylor's mind is like an enormous ice-cream", that he was "...descended from the Big Bang, ..." as a kind of cosmopolitan counter to Sullivan's rather predictable claim. Everyone who wants to 'make it' needs to be of Irish descent, or Welsh or Scottish, and also it is a huge boost if you are Maori. They were filming Sullivan reading at the Albion in 1989 for Television long before his poetry was published...

So Imperialism or not, life is life, and people make use of their 'disadvantages' but I wouldn't put the boot into Reihana and such as Hotere. And, good-looking or not, Sullivan's Waka poems are interesting.

Perhaps I should have changed my name to Patrick'O aiech O'Leary the Second, of Irish-Welsh-Scottish Gipsy descent, 1000000000000000000th generation Kiwi, with lashings of Maori and other infusions in my virile poetic blood-stream...then written of the local, and violined about Mangere or some other 'realistic' tragedies...and written only about NZ and Maori etc...Money in the bank, or possibly a good kick-start to an academic career.

One thinks, in association of this, of certain Auckland poets psycho-bashing and attempting to critically exterminate a woman poet from Eastern Europe as hard as they could because she had been described as exotic, beautiful, mysterious and erotic: or things of that kind (they couldn't, after reading that, bring themselves to read any of her works)...Those writers or would be writers shall remain unnamed for now!

9:35 pm  
Anonymous Alan Woods said...

One Welsh nationalist author even referred to the "Welsh nation"—before the Roman invasion of Britain! This is wishful thinking. The Welsh at that time were an agglomeration of tribes not fundamentally different from other tribes which inhabited what is now known as England. It is a pernicious trait of nationalist writers to try and create the impression that "the nation" (especially their particular nation) has always existed. In fact, the nation state is an historically evolved entity. It has not always existed, and will not always exist in the future.

In reality, the nation state is a product of capitalism. It was established by the bourgeoisie which required a national market. It had to break down the local restrictions with little local areas with their local taxes, toll roads, separate money systems, separate weights and measures. The following extract by Robert Heilbroner puts it very graphically when he describes a journey by a German merchant about the year 1550:

"Andreas Ryff, a merchant, bearded and fur-coated, is coming back to his home in Baden; he writes to his wife that he has visited thirty markets and is troubled with saddle-burn. He is even more troubled by the nuisances of the times; as he travels he is stopped approximately once every ten miles to pay a customs toll; between Basle and Cologne he pays thirty-one levies.

"And that is not all. Each community he visits has its own money, its own rules and regulations, its own law and order. In the area around Baden alone there are 112 different measures of length, 92 different square measures for cereals and 123 for liquids, 63 for liquor, and 80 different pound weights." (R. Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, p. 22.)

10:31 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I think this is true overall. But nationalism is also an extension of how we are a tribe, or an ethnicity, a group. I think there is a natural tendency for such groupings to evolve. These are not only a function of Captitalism (although as Capitalism accelerated from say 1600 to 1900 nation states evolved. Germany was not really an nation in the modern sense in Bach's time (1750 or so). There were various empires. I think though that even as far back as the Roman invasion there were groups. I recall doing Latin years ago and we studied Caesar's writings and others, and the invasion of Wales (after Julius Caesar) was halted by resistance, whereas most of England was conquered. The Romans identified and differentiated Gaul and Germany at the time but I think Germany was a larger region north of Italy at the time. It is true that they were then mostly probably Britons rather than Anglo Saxon but there would have been groups and tribes. These evolved into nations.
But in general nations are a relatively recent invention as your book says. Hitler was keen on having a German nation, a master race from there would rule the world. That was a kind of extreme of nationalism. Since then we have been plagued by it.

In theory at least we are one people. The trouble includes that there are so many different languages, cultures, legal systems, history, religions.

But of course, it is thus still easier for those who are in power to divide and conquer. The Romans knew the value of that: 'divide et imperum' was one of their sayings.

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