Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Three photos from an old file

I step into the photo, which is labelled Pioneers Bar, East Tamaki, 1980. I can smell the cigarette butts that have fallen like petals into the potted plant by the bar. I can smell the piss and flat beer in the carpet. I close my eyes. I inhale my childhood.
Clifton Firth may have photographed my paternal grandparents, though I am still to find the image. He was a Marxist modernist famous, and well rewarded for his shots of Auckland's industrial architecture and its bourgeoisie. If you wanted your freezing works or your Remuera debutante daughter photographed, then Clifton was your man. About 1967 Clifton's daughter Ann commandeered his camera, and shot her siblings playing about a half-built Paremoremo prison.
In 1960 these technicians posed at Otahuhu's telephone exchange. There is an ease, a confidence about them. They can read the wires of the vast machine; they are, were, masters of modernity. Now their machine is lost, their skills old folklore. Today's cyber gurus have inherited the technicians' smiles.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Weirder and weirder

Image result for alt right nz
I don't enjoy thinking about the alt-right, but since the March 15th attacks in Christchurch I've been keeping an eye on some of the movement's local members. I talked about the history of white supremacism on Radio New Zealand's Black Sheep podcast, and I've been tweeting updates on the increasingly weird fantasies of alt-righters like John Ansell, the former National and Act Party ad man whose long-standing fear of 'Maori supremacism' is now complemented by some serious paranoia about Muslims.

Ansell and hundreds of other Kiwis have convinced themselves that the March the 15th atrocities were a 'false flag' operation, and a pretext for the Ardern government to crush civil liberties.

Today Pete George, who has been blogging about the far right for years, has incorporated a couple of my tweets into a post about the increasingly crazed rhetoric of the alt-right.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Forgetting Melanesia

In a piece for EyeContact I've asked whether Auckland museum's white supremacist past still haunts its Ancient Worlds gallery. The gallery is supposed to represent ancient agricultural civilisations, and it includes exquisite artefacts from Egypt, Sumer, Greece. But there is no mention of Melanesia, the place where humans first created agriculture, & where for tens of thousands of years they have maintained complex & successful societies.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Stealing Dylan

The manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist began with a piece of literary appropriation. The terrorist quoted the famous villanelle that Dylan Thomas wrote, perhaps for his ailing father, in 1947. In the early '90s, the same lines were popular with NZ politicians.
When he gave his poem the refrain 'Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light' Thomas was arguing that death was natural, but that it should nevertheless be resisted. The heroes of Thomas' oeuvre are Promethean figures, destined to fight the gods & lose.

Dylan Thomas was too in love with the sound of words & the taste of whiskey to take a sustained interest in politics. He sometimes claimed to be a communist, out of a desire to shock his interlocutors, but never took part in the left activism that thrived during his lifetime. And although Thomas is often associated nowadays with Welsh nationalism, he was prone to denigrate rather than praise his homeland. 'Wales, country of my ancestors, & they can keep it' he once said. The poet craved success & fame in metropolitan London & New York.
After its publication in Thomas' Collected Poems in 1952, 'Do not go gentle...' became his most famous work. In the early '90s, it suddenly began to emerge from the mouths of conservative NZ politicians.
In 1990 Jim Bolger's National Party won a landslide election victory, after promising to reverse the radical free market policies of Labour. When Bolger reneged on this promise, a group of his own MPs, led by Rob Muldoon & Muldoon's protege Winston Peters, began to oppose him.
In 1991 & '92, Winston Peters addressed a series of huge meetings of angry elderly people. One meeting filled Auckland's Town Hall. As he urged resistance to the benefit cuts & other neo-liberal policies of Bolger, Peters quoted the refrain from Dylan Thomas' villanelle to the packed hall.
Late in the winter of 1992, in the midst of a recession & mass unemployment he had blamed on Bolger's policies, Rob Muldoon died. The former PM's funeral at Auckland's Town Hall was a curious mixture of anti-Bolger protest & formal remembrance.
I was at Muldoon's funeral - I was a high school journalist, & was motivated by the chance of a trip into town, as much as by the event. I remember the tension in the town hall, as Bolger & Peters, who were fighting over the future of the National Party, sat on stage together.
Peters turned his eulogy for Muldoon into an attack on the Bolger government. When Bolger rose to speak, a squad of Black Power members jumped up at the back of the hall, performed a haka for their friend Muldoon, & aimed derogatory noises at the PM. The crowd laughed.
Bolger was never an exciting orator, but he found a way to strike back at his enemy. As he paid tribute to Muldoon, he quoted the refrain from Dylan Thomas' villanelle. Muldoon, he said, had raged against the dying of the light. Peters looked aggrieved.
In '92 I was a young poetry fanatic. I had a copy of Thomas' Collected Poems, which I read & reread obsessively on buses & in cafes. I thought of Thomas as the ultimate Bohemian, a man beyond tawdry matters like politics. It was strange to hear him claimed by Peters & Bolger.
The Christchurch terrorist seems to have been attracted to the melancholy of Thomas' villanelle. Like Oswald Spengler & many other far right thinkers, the terrorist seems to have considered 'Western civilisation' was doomed to decline. He wanted to 'rage' against this 'fact'.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Here comes Homo Luzonensis

In his great essay 'Our Sea of Islands' Epeli Hau'ofa celebrated the journeys of his ancestors, who crossed the Pacific in the light of stars & the wakes of whales. But new data suggests that even Hau'ofa's vision of epic ancient voyaging may have been incomplete.
This month a group of scientists has published proof that a separate human species lived on Luzon Island sixty-seven thousand years ago. The revelation of Homo Luzonensis comes shortly after DNA testing revealed that another human species, the Denisovans, reached ancient Melanesia.
Like the Denisovans, whose DNA can be found in significant quantities in Papuan & western Pacific peoples, Homo Luzonensis successfully crossed large areas of open seas, as they moved east out of mainland Asia. Even during Ice Ages, Luzon has never enjoyed a land bridge to Asia.

The history of the Pacific will now have to be rewritten, so that it includes extinct human species as well as homo sapiens. Not even the visionary Epeli Hau'ofa could have foreseen such a thing, when he wrote 'Our Sea of Islands' in the 1990s.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A new species

Thought the history of the Pacific was complicated enough? It's just gotten more complex, with the coming of the Denisovans. I've been tweeting excitedly.

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Slavery in schools

New Zealand is struggling with its past, so I'm pleased to see that the Pacific slave trade, & my book The Stolen island, which describes our role in that trade, made it into last year's stage three history exam for Kiwi students. Part of the exam can be seen on the NZQA site.