Monday, July 31, 2006

Classical savages

Many years ago I befriended a pair of French botanists who had come to the Land of the Long White Cloud to share the fruits of the Old World with their poor relatives. My friends were effusive in their praise for France - for its food, wine, flag, national anthem, palms, and architecture - and frequently complained of feeling like exiles in this country of cheese toasties and fibrolite baches. I'd often end up accompanying the poor souls to Titirangi for a coffee and a therapy session, because Titirangi was the only place in Auckland where they felt at home. The sumptuous Lopdell House, a onetime pub turned art gallery, reminded my friends of the architecture of glorious France, and the view from Lopdell through Titirangi's trees to the blue waters of the middle stretch of the Manukau Harbour reminded them of the lakes of the French Alps.

The unhappy French friends have long since departed, but I still sometimes think of Lopdell House and of Titirangi in general as a sort of outpost of Europe. I'll be stirring my coffee and looking out at the French Alps when a grubby fishing boat will suddenly appear on the Manukau Harbour to remind me where I am.
It seems appropriate, then, that Lopdell House should be the venue for a sequence of lithographs by Marian Maguire, a printer and painter fascinated by the relationship between Europe and these islands. Maguire's lithographs collage Greek, colonial British, and Maori images to create imaginary encounters between all three cultures. At Lopdell House ancient Greeks eye Cook's Endeavour from southern shores; Ajax and a Maori chief play chess; and Athena observes a skirmish between the 'discoverers' of New Zealand and the people of Aotearoa.

Maguire has chosen to build her collages with figures, landscapes, and motifs drawn from well-known classical and colonial-era artworks. Her Ajax comes from the vase by Exekias, and he plays chess against the backdrop of Heaphy's Mt Egmont. The familiarity of Maguire's source material helps offset the whimsical undertones of her notion of a Maori-Greek encounter, and the result is a series of images that are both strange and familiar.

Maguire is inviting us to ponder hoary old oppositions like the 'old' versus the 'new' world and the 'classical' versus the 'primitive'. Were the pagan, martial Greeks, those supposed exemplars of 'classical' values, really so different from Maori, who were regarded as savages by Britons obsessed with the supposedly classical lineage of their own culture? In a lithograph called 'Ko wai koe?', a stylised Maori head and a stylised Greek head regard one another from close range. Are they about to hongi, or headbutt? Are they impressed, or perplexed? Are we even supposed to think about them in this way, as real people rather than mere motifs, cyphers for the cultural values of their creators?

Maguire has her precursors, of course. I think of CK Stead's free and easy translations of the poems of Catullus, which manage an odd fusion of Roman and Kiwi worlds:

Seeing you weeping at the graveside
while trucks rumbled by beyond the hedge
and the mountains stood so still and so silent
against a sky
that went away forever

Tabatha Forbes' sequence Savage/Comfort occupies the room next to Maguire's collages, but it fails to make a comparable impact. Forbes mixes writing that Captain Cook and his botanist Joseph Banks produced during their 1868-1871 expedition to New Zealand with a series of rather enervated drawings of native plants. Forbes spent many hours researching Cook and Banks in the Auckland Museum and various libraries, and she accompanies her sequence with a rambling and pretentious essay. I have the impression that she had more fun producing these works than we can have looking at them. I certainly had difficulty understanding what she had added to her raw materials. No one could make the same complaint about Maguire's collages.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Oral history from below

Trade union activist and researcher Kirsty McCully has a new project - and you're invited to take part in it. Here's the draft outline of Kirsty's research proposal, which she's circulating in the hope of getting comments and contacts. Kirsty's last oral history project was a study of Auckland's Sexual Abuse HELP agency which involved dozens of interviews and resulted in a series of papers and presentations.

You can contact Kirsty at

At this year’s International Oral History Association Conference in Sydney, Australia, long time oral historian and academic Ron Grele spoke to conference participants about the radical past of oral history as a discipline. Grele said that oral history was founded at a time when ‘history from below’ was a new and exciting concept amongst historians and political activists. Oral history was one of the methods for recording the important reality of everyday people’s lives and oral historians were a community of like-minded people committed to an overtly political vision of societal change.

Grele spoke about the shifting paradigms in oral history since the founding of oral history associations in the 1960s. Despite changing ideas about the ability of oral history to tell ‘the truth’ or ‘a truth’ in the 70s and 80s, Grele talked about the need for today’s oral historians to engage with the radical past of the discipline.

Globalisation offers an opportunity to oral historians. That opportunity is to demystify globalisation and to record what is happening to people as a result of capital operating internationally. While as individuals and activists we may condemn globalisation as a way of ordering people's lives, as an international community of oral historians, we have an opportunity is to record global oral histories. Histories that cross boarders and oceans, to show how globalisation and capitalism really impact on people’s lives.

The situation for cleaners, and service workers, worldwide provides us with the perfect example of a workforce whose work cannot be ‘contracted out’ to overseas markets. What happens in the service industry is the opposite - the workers often shift to meet the market. This means that cleaners are a largely immigrant and usually female workforce who move to new countries with the promise of a better future. They clean at night in the office blocks many of us work in, and they are some of the lowest paid and undervalued workers in the western world.

Cleaners and the unions representing them have been getting together, both nationally and internationally, to campaign for improvements to cleaners jobs and lives. In New Zealand, Australia, the USA, the UK and in many other countries, cleaners are taking their struggle to multi-national building owners and to cleaning contractors who have control over the way the industry is structured. Cleaners are trying to take the power back. To do that they are organising.

Talking with activist cleaners to record their experiences as workers, as migrants, as women, as parents, but most of all as campaigners making a difference in their industry, in their jobs and in their lives.

As someone involved as a union organiser in the New Zealand part of the ‘Clean Start: Fair Deal for Cleaners’ campaign, I have seen shy, reserved cleaners become confident union activists - proud of their work, and silent no longer.

I am interested in interviewing cleaners in New Zealand to record their experiences, and I am interested in working with oral historians worldwide to record the stories of other activist-cleaners. This is a change to gain a real understanding of what it’s like to be a cleaner - not just here in New Zealand where the workforce is largely Pacific Island and Maori women, but all around the world.

I’m interested in recording:

-What it’s like to be a cleaner
-What the job involves
-What the problems are with the jobs
-Why they are active in trying to change those jobs
-How they see campaigning as important
-What they’d like their job to be like
-How has the work changed over the time they’ve done it
-What it’s like to be a migrant worker
-Why they came (to NZ, or whichever country)
-What they were told about the country before they made the decision to
-What are the main social issues facing their community
-How they manage their lives around their work - home, family,
balance or lack of this
-Religious, community, political involvement
-Family history - what did their parents do, what are their siblings,
friends, extended family doing - cultural history
- Identity - how do they see themselves
-How do their friends/family back home view them
-Gender issues - domestic labour - who does it, decision making
-Any experiences of stigmatisation/harassment/social exclusion/racism
-Why are they involved in unions and campaigns and what has their
involvement been
-Decision making in their lives
-Connections to home
-Class issues in NZ - do they see themselves as part of a class, or
as a part of their ethnic community
-Hobbies - if they have time for any

Recording these stories across borders could provide an opportunity to bring some global analysis to a movement responding to the impact of globalisation and provide a richness that local recordings may lack. It also offers a chance to have a worldwide record of what cleaners do and how they feel about it. Stories, thoughts, feelings and opinions that otherwise may be missing from history.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Justin Taua live

Last week I posted Justin Taua's take on the Kahui affair. Justin, who is a relative of the Kahui family as well as a long-time Maori rights activist and trade unionist, will be speaking again about the Kahui case next Monday at a forum organised by the 'rank and file group' of unionists. Get the details here.

Here's a report a rank and filer circulated on the last Labour Forum, which featured the Aussie unemployment activist Bill Keats as guest speaker:

25 people turned up, rank and file members of 10 unions (possibly more I didnt see) and a few onside organisers. Political groups who had members there (not necessarily speaking for these groups) were Radical Youth, SWO and CWG. A useful step towards building an Auckland wide rank and file group I thought.

Keith of Waitemata Unite! chaired the session where Bill Keats spoke about Howard's Workchoices. Keith made the point that that phrase was exact. Howard chooses how workers should work.

Bill spoke for about 30 minutes. He introduced himself as a delegate from Standup a Sydney based unemployed workers union, funded by another union to visit NZ as a guest of Waitemata Unite!, and not least as a member of the Communist Left of Australia.

Bill explained some of the history and context of the Workchoices legislation, like how some of the rightwing don't like it because it takes away the control of the states (which even under Labor state governments have bad industrial legislation) because they fear that even a right-wing Federal Labor Government might water down Howard's industrial legislation.

He spoke about the actual provisions of the new laws which most people have a basic grasp of since its understood to be similar to our old NZ Employment Contracts Act [ECA]. And that already many employers are using it to sack people, re-employ them on wages as low as $6, etc.

Most interesting and what stimulated a good discussion was the so-called 'fightback' or lack of it rather. Three big union organised rallies so far, well attended, but not raising the need to build strike action. Rather rallying 'wider Australia' around calls for 'fairness' and trying to build support among the better off workers to come back to Labor in the next election so that Beazley would win and repeal the legislation.

Bill said that some left groups and some of the more militant unions were calling for strike action and trying to build support for strike action but the potential for that was as yet untested. This is backed up by other material posted on Aotearoa Indymedia.

Bill's own position was to organise strikes in support of the strongest sectors of workers to pull the weaker sectors in behind them and generalise the strike action with the object of bringing down the Howard Government.

The discussion was mainly around which groups were organising what sort of actions, and what lessons could be taken from NZ's experience under the ECA.

There were a couple of comments along the lines of Aussie workers not repeating the ECA experience but getting the rank and file to initiate actions and chuck out the bureaucratic sellouts in bed with Labor, made by comrades who went through the 80s and 90s struggles here.

This set the scene for a tea-break followed by a discussion on upcoming actions including Mapp’s Bill and organising, chaired by Alister of the rank- and- file group that has been meeting over the last couple of months.

There was a lot of cynicism about the NZ Council of Trade Unions campaign against Mapp's Bill. People were participating in the leafletting and rolling actions but I detected little enthusiasm for the demands, poor organisation and almost non-events. One comrade pointed out that the reason for this slack campaign was that the NZCTU expected the Bill to be dumped on reportback to the House.

The general view was that it was important to attend all these 'events' and denounce the Bill, but to raise more direct demands on Labour like end youth rates now, and to concentrate on publicising support for any actual disputes going on, and the need to get active unionists organised across all the unions in a sort of rank and file ginger group.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The lonesome grave of Fred Evans

Waikaraka Cemetery in Onehunga is not one of Auckland's more famous burial grounds. It is as large as the Grafton graveyard in the inner city, and almost as old as the vast necropolis at Waikumete in the west, but it has never had the mystique that either of those places enjoys. Wedged between a scruffy industrial district and the smooth but dirty waters of the upper Manukau Harbour, Waikaraka has never attracted the gangs of grave-scratching genealogists, stoned street kids, and neurotic teenage goths which infest Grafton and Waikumete. To rest at Waikaraka is to rest in peace, with only the occasional aged relative or lame seagull for company.

Waikaraka seems at once an ironic and an appropriate place for Fred Evans to rest. Ironic, because Evans died surrounded by a crowd, was mourned by huge crowds, and was laid to rest surrounded by a crowd. Appropriate, because Evans symbolises a period in New Zealand history which has been made mysterious by both the passage of time and the changing of political fashion.

Fred Evans was shot dead in 1912 during a protracted and bitter strike in the gold mining town of Waihi south of Auckland. The thirty-three year old miner's killers were the drunken and undisciplined 'special' policemen who would reappear the following year to play a brutal and perhaps decisive role in the smashing of the revolutionary general strike called by the 'Red' Federation of Labour. The defeat of the Red Feds and the outbreak of World War One in 1914 marked the end of the radical period in New Zealand labour history, and set the stage for the emergence of a gradualist Labour Party and a trade union movement devoted to partnership with employers rather than the overthrow of the wage system. A small and frustrated minority has looked back to the model of 1912 and 1913.

Fred Evans has not been completely forgotten - commemorations are still held on the anniversary of his death by small groups of Kiwi trade unionists and leftists - but he is undoubtedly an obscure figure in New Zealand history, a footnote to an era that has itself become a footnote. In 1912, though, Evans was a martyr mourned by tens of thousands of workers in Waihi and Auckland. Though he died peniless, he was buried under a handsome headstone paid for by hundreds of donations.

The inscriptions on the middle and lower parts of the headstone read 'He died for his class' and 'Greater love hath no man, than he who layeth down his life for his friends'. Another part of the stone shows two hands shaking inside the slogan 'Workers of the World Unite'. One is reminded both of Christianity's faith in sacrifice and of syndicalism's faith in the 'one big union'. (Nonconformist Christians played an important part in the formation of early socialist groups in New Zealand, and by 1912 the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World had become a force inside the Red Federation of Labour.)

The NZ History site has a tasteful and interesting page on Fred Evans, but can't avoid giving the impression that the cause the man died for is historical, if not simply ridiculous. Many Kiwi historians would agree with such an assessment: Keith Sinclair's trailblazing national history gave the Red Feds a cameo role before the birth of the 'mature' labour movement, and Sinclair's successor Michael King was also keen to downplay the organisation Evans died for as out of step with the moderation and good common sense that mark New Zealand society and therefore doomed to failure.

Others have disagreed: in his fine history of the coal mining unionism in this country the Marxist scholar Len Richardson characterised 1912 and 1913 as a time of 'revolutionary turmoil', and more recently the academic heavyweight James Belich has unearthed hospital admission records which suggest that serious street fighting was taking place in New Zealand's large cities in 1913.

Which view of Fred Evans and the Red Feds will win out? Will the grave beside the quiet waters of the Manukau remain a curiousity, or will it one day be seen as an important piece of history? The answers to these questions depend on the fortunes of the labour movement of today. Watch this space, and others like it.

Monday, July 24, 2006


I'd never seen this flag until it turned up on the demo against Israeli attacks on Lebanon held last Saturday in Auckland. The Spanish expat waving it relieved me of my ignorance, explaining that it was the flag of the Republican Spanish government overthrown by Franco, and that today, on the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of Franco's revolt, it is being used again in demonstrations in Spain, as a symbol of the country's left tradition.

There were apparently hundreds of Republican flags being waved on the enormous demonstration of solidarity with Lebanon and Palestine held a few days back in Barcelona. You can read a report on the much smaller but still spirited Auckland demo here.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

For the love of violence

Since I seem to be suffering from the vagaries of the flu, or one of its avatars, and feel too listless and lazy to post something of my own, I'm going to reproduce the thoughtful comment that Jay Sparrow made yesterday in response to my post on the increasingly pathetic Christopher Hitchens...

Hitchens' devolution is fascinating, in an awful way.

I reckon it works like this. As he moves from Marxism (or at least radicalism) to liberalism, he loses any sense of totality. He can see the war in Iraq as a liberation, because he's against dictators. But he refuses to make any connection between means and ends, or, indeed, between GWB's overthrow of Saddam and, say, the Republican pandering to the backwater idiocies of the Christian right.
So Hitchens' writings now are all incredibly compartmentalised. He writes obsessively, for instance, about Iraq and Islam and the defense of the enlightenment -- but says nothing about how the people he supports are campaigning against Charles Darwin in the United States.

At the same time, he hides his retreat from radicalism from himself by continuing to attack liberals in the same style he used when he was a socialist. They don't go far enough; they don't think things through; they prefer snivelling piecemeal changes rather than grand gestures. In particular, they flinch from violence, while Hitchens maintains his swaggering radical persona by an overt embrace of it. Unlike most of the cruise missile liberals, he doesn't use euphemisms. He revels in talking about killing terrorists and obliterating jihadists, in much the same way a certain kind of obnoxious young man, when he joins a Trotskyist group, takes to glorying in Kronstadt (rather than, say, accepting it as a horrible necessity).

Of course, the other people on the US political scene who love violence are the Neanderthal Right -- and this is where the Galbraith review comes in. For what does Hitchens really have in common with the kinds of people his politics have drawn him towards? He's a sophisticated Oxbridge graduate, not some hill-billy reader of the Left Behind books.

That's another reason why he spends all his time polemicising against the liberals, for fighting against them (which is pretty much all he does in his Slate columns these days) at least allows him to engage with people with whom he has something in common. I reckon he's changed his tone now because he recognises that he's starting to lose his influence in liberal circles -- and once that happens, what's he left with? He doesn't want to end up with the Bible-thumping Right and, more to the point, they have no use for a cosmopolitan literary egghead, anyway. Hence the new respectful tone about the Galbraith book.
That's my theory anyway.

For more detail on Hitchens' fondness for gore, see this piece by Richard Seymour, the propietor of Lenin's Tomb.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Hitchens turns to fatalism

Over at leftwrites Gary Pearce has been pondering the sombre and respectful review that pro-war gadfly Christopher Hitchens has given to Peter Galbraith's new book The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. Galbraith is the son of that wonderfully haughty liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and his book drips with disdain for the crudities and inanities of George Bush's worldview and foreign policy. (Galbraith's revelation that at the beginning of 2003 Bush did not even know the meaning of the terms 'Sunni' and 'Shia' is delivered with particular contempt.)

Since his conversion to a 'left-wing' brand of neo-conservatism in the aftermath of 9/11, Christopher Hitchens has made himself one of the most aggressive attack dogs of the US ruling class. In scores of articles for right-wing publications like the Wall Street Journal Hitchens has denounced opponents of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as fellow travellers of fascism and deadly enemies of the Iraqi people. For Hitchens, the Western anti-war movement has been little better than a fifth column threatening to undermine the revolutionary struggle for democracy and the free market being waged by those well-known heroes of the people George Bush and Dick Cheney.

Faced with Galbraith's meticulously unsympathetic take on Bush foreign policy, though, Hitchens has adopted a tone which contrasts strikingly with the aggression and gung ho optimism of his recent journalism. He talks of the 'misery and sectarianism' being suffered by Iraqis, and calls life in Baghdad 'hellish'.

I've discussed the ideological tendency Hitchens represents several times before on this blog, and suggested that this tendency fell into deep crisis as soon as the US adventure in Iraq began to turn into a disaster. Some of Hitchens' friends in the neo-con movement have also been at a low ebb, but they now appear to be enjoying a second wind, as Israel's attacks on Lebanon give them a new war to rally around.

But Hitchens and most of the rest of the 'pro-war left' appear unwilling or unable to hitch their wagon to the new war, and this is perhaps not surprising: even commentators as shameless as Hitchens and his mate Norm Geras would find it rather hard to present Israel's bombing of power stations and dairy factories as part as some sort of crusade for social democracy in Lebanon. Hitchens' response to the Middle East's newest crisis has been glumly and no doubt reluctantly critical of the Bush administration and its puppets in Israel.

Hitchens' hopes for Iraq now seem to rest on the prospect of some sort of partition of the country, and on the development of an oasis of democracy in Kurdistan. His optimism about the situation in Kurdistan isn't shared by the Kurdish left, which complains of persecution by peshmerga militias and even of a creeping fascism.

What is perhaps most notable about Hitchens' review of Galbraith's book, though, is the explanation it offers for the disaster which has befallen Iraq since its 'liberation' three and a quarter years ago. While Hitchens accepts that the liberators have been monumnetally incompetent, he uses Galbraith to argue that Iraq was always doomed to disaster, invoking a strange sort of cartographic determinism to make his point:

Iraq was a bad idea as a state to begin with, and has been falling apart for a very long time. Given this, it is difficult to imagine any American statecraft that could (or even should) have held it together.

It's true that the borders of Iraq are quite arbitrary, and that Iraqi nationalism did not exist even a hundred years ago, but similar points could be made about most countries in the Middle East, and indeed in the Third World as a whole. European colonists drew boundaries that suited them, not the peoples they oppressed for so long. Why doesn't most of the post-colonial world look like Baghdad? Galbraith knows, but Hitchens apparently doesn't.

But it's difficult to believe Hitchens takes the details of his own argument too seriously. He seems concerned not to give a coherent explanation of the disaster that has befallen Iraq, but rather to accept some of the reality of the situation in Iraq without also accepting any of the anti-war left's arguments about the malign nature of US imperialism. To this end he seems happy to borrow the crudely racist argument of those sections of the US right that have turned anti-war - namely, the view that the Iraqis were too primitive to 'handle' their 'liberation' - and tinker with it to make it slightly less offensive.

Where the likes of William Buckley jr baldly state that Iraqis are not civilised enough to build a democratic society, Hitchens fetishises Iraqi history, arguing that the boundaries and ethnic mix British colonialism bequeathed to the country made disaster inevitable. Hitchens' earlier ebullient aggression has been replaced by a weary fatalism. A more honest man would have fallen into an embarrassed silence.

Tomas holds his lead

Despite a charge by Harold Pinter, the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer is holding on to his lead in our 'Greatest Living Writer' poll. John Ashbery, Margaret Atwood, and Bob Dylan are making respectable showings, Jack Ross has lost his mojo, JK Rowling appears to have attracted some pity votes, and one hundred and four year old Edward Upward is helping Stephen King bring up the rear.

What is the secret of Tomas' success? How has this retired psychologist, who writes sparingly in a minor European language, managed to overtake and then hold off some of the most glittering names in world literature, not to mention Jack Ross, who has apparently been buying beers for Richard Taylor in return for a daily vote?

I made a couple of tentative suggestions in an earlier post, but I think that this appreciation of one of Transtromer's poems probably gets to the heart of the man's appeal. The author of the appreciation is not some academic or professional writer, but simply a sufferer of that wonderful state of evangelism that great works of literature can inflict on readers. And as for the turkey who complained that the Transtromer piece being discussed is 'quite simply, not a poem', presumably because it is written in prose, all I can say is get with the programme, comrade! Baudelaire was writing poems in prose one hundred and fifty years ago!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Posties get angry

Details are still a bit fuzzy, for this blogger at least, but it seems that Kiwi posties may be out on strike today as they campaign for a better collective contract. Reproduced below is a leaflet that has been prepared for distribution on picket lines in Auckland by some militant trade unionists.

Postal Workers are fighting

Posties are going through important industrial changes at this time. The 6 day delivery system is up for review and will most likely be replaced by Monday to Friday deliveries. How to implement this for the workforce without loss of pay is an important question for the unions. The introduction of new postal codes and mail sorting machinery will make many mail sorters redundant as the new systems come online. Retraining and compensation for redundancies is also essential.

The Council of Trade Unions (CTU) head, Ross Wilson had shepherded the Postal Workers Federation and Engineers Union (EPMU) towards joint negotiations with NZ Post. What are the dangers for union members in such a situation?

Settlement of a deal for both unions would be voted on separately, but what happens if one union voted to accept a deal and the other union voted to reject it?

Recent history gives us an example: The EPMU recently got into this situation with the Aviation & Marine Engineers Association, over the deal they proposed with Air NZ. In October 2005, Air New Zealand announced plans to cut 600 jobs from heavy maintenance engineering. The EPMU effectively set up a deal to ‘save 300 jobs’ but to sell out conditions (rostered shifts) of Christchurch based engineers. In effect, the EPMU wanted a smaller union to take a loss in order to save jobs.

The Christchurch Engineers rejected the deal (saved their conditions) but were subject to abuse / ridicule by the EMPU for rejecting the conditions, and the whole deal falling over. That placed considerable pressure on the smaller union about the deal.

The smaller union must be organised on the shop floor and ready to support their claims with action. Negotiations are only as successful as the organisation of workers is strong.

Organise action separately

The EPMU is likely to lead workers into negotiations and offer little other than talk, talk, talk, and a legal path. The EPMU delegates’ forums are few and far between. There is little opportunity for delegates to raise issues from the shop floor.

The EMPU organisers are expected by their management to run the meetings according to their agenda, so these meetings become top-down, less democratic.

The Postal Workers Federation can be a real leadership, and that would show up the weakness of the EPMU officials. PWF members can raise issues from the shop floor in more democratic union meetings. The communication back to members about what is being done is important to demonstrate effective union leadership, however organising in the workplace is most important.

Actions such as not signing off “round profiles” shows real leadership about the conditions that matter on the ground. Members and delegates need to be discussing how to implement work–to-rule, What we can do to prepare to take direct action to support claims?

Communication among union members is essential to take united action. Swapping phone numbers and using email and internet are ways to stay in touch. Setting up a telephone tree is a way to call meetings, and rapidly let all members know essential information. How else can members be prepared to take action if a union member is victimized by the employer? (eg. suspended or dismissed). Only the solidarity of union members in support of delegates can protect other workers against victimisation.

Taking the lead on the shop-floor would force EPMU members to question their officials and to also put pressure on for real action to support their claims. The potential for united action remains.

Having 2 unions in the workplace means that ordinary workers are questioning the union leaderships. An effective union leadership will carry the interests of members into all of its actions. We would hope that the best leadership would gain the most members and recruit the membership of the other union, which could then fade into deserved irrelevance.

A Class Struggle Leaflet by Communist Workers Group.
Website: PO Box 6595 Auckland


Written before The Waste Land and The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock in that odd literary sub-genre known as the prose poem, it's not one of TS Eliot's better-known works, but it's been nagging at my mind these last few days, so I'm going to stick it up here. Apologies to those wanting high-powered political analysis.


As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her
laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were
only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I
was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary
recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her
throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An
elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly
spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty
green iron table, saying: "If the lady and gentleman
wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and
gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden ..." I
decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be
stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might
be collected, and I concentrated my attention with
careful subtlety to this end.

Stacey's top ten

Blog reader and film nut Stacey Arnold has responded to Muzzlehatch's list of his top ten movies. Personally, I can't think who has the dodgier taste...

I don't know how to put this up on your site, so I'm e mailing it to you. Please help me help Muzzlenatch develop some taste. I pity him, you know...

In no particular order:

1. Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999)
I love Edward Norton's nameless character as he drones on about the nature of his (non) existence. I am Jack's wasted life.

2. American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)
I haven't read the book so I can't compare the two, but I adored this movie. Christian Bale (a favourite actor of mine) executes a marvellously understated performance as the titular psychopath. Favourite scene: The business card comparisons. Oh Yes.

3. Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971)
A wonderfully comic and beautiful movie about a macabre adolescent who discovers life, excitement and sex with a soon to be octogenarian.

4. Romance X (Catherine Breillat, 1999)
I have read many reviews of this movie by men who criticise it as being completely unrealistic. I defy all of them as being completely ignorant of the female sexual psyche.

5. Breaking the Waves (Lars von Trier, 1996)
I could choose any of Lars von Trier's Golden Hearts trilogy, but Breaking the Waves was the first and most heartbreaking that I saw. The suffering that the human soul can both withstand and inflict leaves me breathless. To a lesser extent this theme is expressed competently in my opinion by Roman Polanski's much criticised Bitter Moon.
6. This is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984)
"In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, an ancient race of people... the Druids. No one knows who they were or what they were doing... "
This mockumentary has never really aged. It is still as hilarious as when it was released 22 years ago. I cant think about the Stonehenge argument without tears coming to my eyes.

7. Oldboy (Park Chan-Wook, 2003)
An outstanding tale of love and revenge you've *never* seen before.

8. Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
P T Anderson was inspired to make this movie from listening to Aimee Mann's music, an enlisted her to do the score. I think this partnership is one of the main reasons this movie is so right. The cast is excellent (even Tom Cruise) and the interwoven stories are compelling and never tedious. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a God.

9. Howl's Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004)
This was a hard choice to make from the Miyazaki films I've seen, but the animation is exquisite and the story touching... an enchanting experience.

10. Gilda (Charles Vidor, 1946)
I'm not the only one to fall in love with Rita Hayworth while watching this movie. The actress herself said, "Men go to bed with Gilda, but wake up with me". She makes me feel...funny.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Anony Mouse versus Justin Taua

This morning I checked my e mail box to find two messages: a short and sharp comment on the death of the Kahui twins by one Anony Mouse, and the (abridged) text of a talk which Justin Taua gave yesterday at a function organised by the Waitemata branch of the Unite trade union.

Anony Mouse's epistle is typical of the discourse that has surrounded the Kahui case on talkback radio and in mainstream newspapers:

How can you stand up and defend a bunch of deadbeat, alcoholic, no-hopers; blowing thousands of taxpayer dollars a week on their pathetic, violent, booze-fuelled lifestyle; contributing absolutely zero to New Zealand society, and now covering up a double child murder?!?!?

You and your ilk are the reason NZ society has deteriorated so markedly in the last few years in to a unbelievably violent, intimidating and unsafe one...and the reason we would never go back and live there. And the gutless, useless, PC-hobbled NZ police force does nothing, for fear of offending these worthless savages. Can't suspects can be locked up for deliberately withholding information and hindering a police investigation?!?!

While Anony Mouse's mind races uselessly round the mazes made by ignorance and prejudice, Justin Taua is able to cut very quickly to the heart of the Kahui case. But then Justin has two important advantages over our hapless Mouse. In the first place, he is a close relative of the Kahuis, and still lives in the same community as many of them. Secondly, and just as importantly, he is a Marxist, and thus has a method, a way of thinking, which enables him to escape from the maze that imprisons the 'commentators' who fill our airwaves and newspapers with their prejudices. Anony Mouse knows what to think; Justin knows how to think.

Where the Annony Mice exist in a sort of eternal present, thinking in headlines and sound bites and experiencing one bout of hysteria after another, Justin is able to step back and put the tragedy of the Kahui family into some sort of historical and social perspective. His talk on Sunday to Unite members was gratefully received. If only the Annony Mice would listen...

Here's the summary of Justin's talk:

The 2006 launch of Matariki (Maori New Year) on Mangere Mountain had a significance that went beyond the dawn of a new year. Organised by South Auckland police and Maori leaders, it marked yet another point at which Maori and the poor had been hoodwinked into taking responsibility for social problems totally the result of political and economic dysfunction.

The crowd of 800 or so were gathered to commemorate the deaths of 115 NZers to die in domestic violence over the previous 10 years. It took on a special poignancy in relation to the most recent family tragedy; the deaths of baby twins Chris and Cru Kahui. A woman’s voice rang out “They’re just rubbish…they should all be tossed in jail.” To which the crowd reacted with loud applause. That reaction would set the theme for the solemn events of that miserable winter morning. The rule of the lynch mob was very much in evidence, but so was the thought of political opportunism. The trial by media and presumption of guilt has been but a foretaste of things to come.
The families and individuals who are part of the rootless army of excess cheap labour, unable to cope, too poor and demoralised, are forced to gather in clusters under one roof to share the ever increasing cost of living. Hope is drenched in a cocktail of drugs, alcohol and slot machines. At every stage along the way, the wheels of profit suck the very dignity out of these people. This is life for the Kahui whanau.

PM Helen Clark’s announcement that a special working task force be set up to investigate housing where overcrowding by beneficiaries is a problem, will in short amount to a witch-hunt. Without addressing the real problem of insufficient housing, that task force is more likely to recommend more sweeping powers for the police. In a climate of increasing draconian State intervention (War on Terror) and ‘get tough on crime’, the scene is set for a standardised imperialist police state modelled on that of which the United States is hoping to achieve.

When Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples was asked to intervene by one of his personal staff (also a Kahui), it was in accordance with the kaupapa of whanaungatanga (supporting family) as well as his duty as MP for Tamaki. For the state and traditionalists, the mana of that leadership together with that of tribal elders was being put to the test.

The inevitable failure of that intervention can be put down to the new mode of Maori leaders being no more than bureaucratic bargaining agents for the State. Sharples’ description of the Kahui whanau as ‘dysfunctional’ and showing disrespect towards himself and the elders, shows how out of touch and blind to the real causes he and that leadership are. Stripped of any real power, their limited politics and compromise has forced many individuals and communities to seek alternative directions.
For the more marginalised such as the Kahui whanau, that direction could potentially have a more brutal outcome. As gang affiliates, they know the retributional nature of gang justice, particularly in regards to crimes against children. Their silence has meant a determination to settle justice on their own terms with honour and without interference from the State. Unlike State law where the aggrieved are no more than passive bystanders; it is the aggrieved who will decide the fate of the guilty.

To paint the Kahui whanau as honourable would force the State to give recognition to a set of values outside of its control. Political and media silence on the issue is driven by the fear of opening up a Pandora’s Box that would threaten to undermine bourgeois power and authority. The recent case of two Headhunters tried for chopping off the finger of a fellow gang member for breaking gang rules, reminds us that parallel justice (or injustice) systems do exist outside of the State in Aotearoa.

Workers could independently put the ‘system’ on trial and set up courts to try the real criminals responsible for inflicting the chaotic ‘dysfunction’ that is capitalism. Its reactionary barbarism and gang behaviour expropriated from the past would be consigned to history.

None of the concerns focused on the issue of guilt, have addressed where the real guilt lies. Justice determined outside of workers control is always going to be in the interests of individuals who do not have the mandate of the majority who constitute the working class.

The present reality for workers is far from what is being described. But independence as a working class free of State control is a goal that must be achieved in order to affect the process leading to revolutionary change. By doing so, real and lasting justice will come to babies Chris and Cru Kahui together with their distant cousin Steven Wallace all working class descendants from Ngaruahine Iwi of South Taranaki.

Te Taua Karuwhero Kahui

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Hear Bill get a grilling

The enigmatic Bill Direen was recently pinned down for twenty minutes by National Radio's arch-interrogator Kim Hill. The woman who broke John Pilger soon had Bill spilling the beans about the cultural and political scene in his adopted France, about the recent Kiwi-French literary festival in Paris, about the price of rock stardom, about the new avant-garde publishing venture Titus Books , and about his own new novel. You can listen to the action here, thanks to Muzzlehatch's unrivalled technical wizardry.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Blogging from the left side of the ditch

My review of Louis Althusser's 'new' book is up on Aussie's Labor Tribune site, after some gentle massaging from editor Marcus Strom. Marcus has evidently been a busy bee: as well as setting up Labor Tribune, he is one of the twenty movers and shakers at Leftwrites, the stylishly designed new blog that features commentary from across the Aussie left spectrum.

Another Ocker blog worth checking out is auswatch, which is produced by a gang of bright young things typing furiously amidst the bright lights of Sydney. One of these brainy creatures is Mike Beggs, a born and bred Kiwi who had solemnly sworn to raise the IQ of this blog before following the traitorous path of Clarrie Grimmett, Neil Finn, John Clarke and Russell Crowe* and defecting to the left side of the ditch. Traitor! Splitter!

*Actually, Australia and the Rabbitohs can keep Russell...

Update: There's an interview with Marcus in the latest Weekly Worker.


for some reason all the movies I’m seeing lately seem to be French with subtitles, must be that time of the season. The movie I watched late last night on dvd though, caught me entirely by surprise, I’d vaguely heard of it before as there had been an uproar about a ten minute rape scene in it, and lots of calls to ban it (it may have been banned here for a short while, someone will no doubt know) so I wasn’t sure what to expect, maybe more sensationalist rubbish, what I found though was a quite brilliant portrayal of injustice, brutality, love and revenge.

The movie starts at the end and works towards the beginning, scene after scene, so the story by unrolling backwards is ‘irreversible’ and that is quite disconcerting. There is no hoping that the characters might escape their horrific fate, and no introduction to the characters before their fate overtakes them, first we see what has happened and then we slowly work backwards to find out what led up to the events and who the characters were who were involved, and the more we find out about them, the more horrific their fate seems and the more appalled we are that it is irreversible.

The strange thing about this movie is that it seems more ‘realistic’ than many films operating in the standard direction (99.9% of them) as for once we’re not watching fate with all its possibilities evolve, there is no manipulation of circumstances, no hope, you have to face reality head-on, the hero does not escape the ticking bomb, boy and girl do not run away together, and the sheer destructiveness, cruelty and injustice of rape is burned onto the screen.

The rape scene itself which caused so much uproar is entirely necessary, the banal brutality is laid out in front of the viewer, in real-time, no punches pulled. It is not melodramatic, it is not sensationalist, the audience have to make their own observations and for that reason it is one of the most affecting portrayals of violence I have seen, the viewer is forced to engage their own morals.

Any self-proclaimed ‘watchdog’ which tried to ban this film is as naive as an Ostrich with its head in the sand, this film should be seen, it is effective, intelligent and powerful; and in the end, more moral than bland sermonizing.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

What's all the fuss about?

Syd Barrett's recording career lasted little more than five years, and spawned about five albums' worth of material. Yet Barrett was able to live out the last 35 years of his life as a recluse in a leafy suburb of Cambridge on the royalties earned by these recordings, and also earn a critical reputation greater than those enjoyed by many musicians who have recorded fifty albums over five decades.

The huge response to Barrett's death this week (for starters, check out some of the links at the bottom of this obituary) is in part testament to the legend that grew up around lurid stories of drug abuse and mental illness, but it is also a sign of the genuine awe that his slim body of work has inspired in successive generations of listeners. In his short and disjointed career Barrett managed to pioneer at least half a dozen styles of music, from prog rock to Britpop to psych folk, with an ease that disarmed contemporaries and still communicates itself to listeners today.

If you're wondering what all the fuss is about, a good place to start is this page, where you can watch some film clips of Syd doing his thing with the first incarnation of the Pink Floyd. You can watch the recently recovered film clip that accompanied the Floyd's first single 'Arnold Layne', a song which David Bowie credits with kickstarting his career by providing a template for a new type of English pop music that mixed social realism and fantasy.

The followup to 'Arnold Layne' was 'See Emily Play'; Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds described it as 'the most perfect pop song imaginable', and you can watch the Floyd perform it at youtube.

By the time the band released their third single, the pocket symphony 'Apples and Oranges', they had already released their first and best album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn (check out its mindblowing opening track here), and seen their songwriter and frontman begin his descent into madness. To see Barrett performing this song on youtube is to watch a man on the brink of an abyss.

'Jugband Blues', Syd's only contribution to the second Pink Floyd album, is a postcard from the abyss - watch out for the performance in the middle by a Salvation Army brass band that Barrett dragged into the studio and ordered to 'make up something' on the spot.

Throughout his long years of retirement in Cambridge, Barrett was pursued by fans and journalists who saw him as England's most famous recluse - as some sort of English JD Salinger, perhaps. I half-hoped to catch a glimpse of the man during the time I spent in Cambridge last year. Now that Barrett is dead, it's perhaps not inappropriate to advertise this film of him walking around Cambridge in 1998.

Although Barrett abandoned music in the early 70s, he continued to pursue his original passion of painting for the rest of his life, and a few examples of his work have made their way into private collections and onto the internet (an example is reproduced below). Hopefully the rest of this body of work will eventually find its way into the light of day.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Another loss

First Leicester Kyle and now, a week later, Syd Barrett.

It's awfully considerate of you to think of me here
And I'm much obliged to you for making it clear
That I'm not here.
And I never knew the moon could be so big
And I never knew the moon could be so blue
And I'm grateful that you threw away my old shoes
And brought me here instead dressed in red
And I'm wondering who could be writing this song.

I don't care if the sun don't shine
And I don't care if nothing is mine
And I don't care if I'm nervous with you
I'll do my loving in the winter.

And the sea isn't green
And I love the queen
And what exactly is a dream
And what exactly is a joke.

Oh where are you now
pussy willow that smiled on this leaf?
When I was alone you promised the stone from your heart
my head kissed the ground
I was half the way down, treading the sand
please, please, lift a hand
I'm only a person whose arm bands beats
on his hands, hang tall
won't you miss me?
Wouldn't you miss me at all?

The poppy birds way
swing twigs coffee brands around,
brandish her wand with a feathery tongue
my head kissed the ground
I was half the way down, treading the sand
please, please, please lift the hand
I'm only a person with Eskimo chain
I tattooed my brain all the way...
Won't you miss me?
Wouldn't you miss me at all?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

He's not tainted, but Italy's victory is

Monday, July 10, 2006

Better than Deaker

I think it was Tom Scott who defined illness as the body's version of a vote of no confidence. For the last couple of days my stomach has been voting no confidence in me; my flamates call it food poisoning, and I've sworn to myself not to eat steak again for at least a week. Abstaining from red meat isn't as bad, though, as having to spend all day in bed. Normally lying in bed in the daytime is a luxury, an opportunity to finish dodgy novels or surf the net on my laptop. But when my stomach periodically revolts against its treatment and goes on strike, so that the sight of text of any sort makes me seasick, then a strange sort of torpor overcomes me, and I find myself turning the dials on the radio and TV, searching for something diverting, even if it is the Murray Deaker Show on Radio Sport or a Harry Potter movie on TV.

Thank goodness, then, for Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance, the brand-new anthology put together by Jack Ross and Jan Kemp. Thanks to the two full-length CDs that accompany this book I was able to give Deaker short shrift, lie back in bed and close my eyes, and spend Sunday afternoon and evening luxuriating in the dulcet tones of a young Fleur Adcock, the otherworldy rhetoric of an even younger RAK Mason, and the impish lyrics of Hone Tuwhare. Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance contains work by these poets and twenty-four others; every poem is presented on the page as well as on disc, and Ross and Kemp supply useful biographical and bibliographical notes.

The editors have been thorough, but not over-zealous. Some of the older recordings Ross and Kemp present are marked by a certain distortion, but the editors have wisely refrained from any sort of sonic 'clean up'. Even if it irritates some pedantic listeners, the trace left by primitive recording equipment is an essential part of performances like James K Baxter's reading of his 'Poem in the Matukituki Valley'. It is a sort of aural patina, a reminder of the distance between Baxter's era and our own.

Lying back and listening to the tracks roll by, I was tempted to compare Ross and Kemp's gathering to some of my favourite double albums, like the Beatles' White Album or Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes. A double album is a sprawling thing, with plenty of room for experiment and surprise as well as the expected anthems. Ross and Kemp serve up a number of certified Kiwi classics, like Dennis Glover's 'Magpies' and Allen Curnow's 'House and Land', but they also provide some surprises. The uncanonised MK Joseph is given more tracks than either Baxter or Charles Brasch; postmodern maverick Michael Harlow rubs up against sturdy realists Peter Bland and Vincent O'Sullivan; and CK Stead's oft-slighted variations on Catullus are preferred over his less adventurous work.

A particularly welcome surprise is the young David Mitchell. The last time I saw Mitchell he was jumping up and down in a puddle outside a shopping mall in Newmarket; here he is, though, on page 124 and track 51, with his 'my lai/ remuera/ ponsonby'. Written at the fag-end of the sixties and included in Pipe Dreams in Ponsonby , Mitchell's only book, the poem seems at once dated and urgently contemporary. The acid-drenched hippy counterculture Mitchell symbolised may have faded from view, and the fashion for lower case-only texts full of ampersands may have gone with it, but US imperialism has not disappeared, even if the stage for its atrocities has shifted from Indochina to the Middle East.

When I saw Mitchell read at the Shakespeare Tavern in the early nineties his back was bent and his voice was broken. Sometimes his shaking hands would drop his tattered copy of Pipe Dreams and he would lapse into silence, aiming a psychotic stare at the audience. On track 51, though, the young Mitchell's voice is firm and clear; there is a sad promise in its sureness, and in the cadences of the poem it carries:

holds th mirror to her eye

whole villages burn.

2 million years have proved nothing

did not already know.

Kendrick Smithyman's voice is another that surprises. Ross and Kemp take only one of their four Smithyman poems from Closing the Chocolate Factory, the short film that shows the great man reading and discussing his poems a few days before his death in 1995. That last performance was a triumph of the will over the flesh, as Smithyman's thin, tired voice struggled with the silence that was about to overwhelm it. Ross and Kemp give us three poems - 'Communicating', 'Inlet', and 'Near Ellon' - read crisply and firmly by a younger and much healthier Smithyman. Fans used to encountering the 'sly old fox of New Zealand verse' on the page may be startled by how well-suited these three poems are to performance. It has long been fashionable to pigeonhole Smithyman as a 'difficult', 'academic' poet, but his delight in the cadences of 'Communicating' shows that he was influenced by tub-thumpers like Dylan Thomas, as well as the cryptic crossword puzzle:

We communicate. We do not say
our words into meaning that a day
is as it goes beside the fluent Channel.

I can recommend Classic New Zealand Poets in Performance, then, to anyone laid low by a dodgy stomach on a wet weekend. For sheer entertainment value, Ross and Kemp's anthology easily beats Murray the Mouth, let alone that Harry Potter rerun on TV 2. Who says poetry is dead?

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Pete Lusk remembers Leicester

Jack Ross and I wrote tributes to the remarkable Leicester Kyle last week. Now Pete Lusk, a long-time environmental activist on the West Coast, has communicated some of his memories of Leicester.

I'm very pleased to have the opportunity to post something here, because it wasn't possible for our family to get to Leicester's funeral in Christchurch today. As the next best thing we went up to Millerton and walked along some of the historic tracks Leicester helped re-open at the Old Dip and Millerton mines.

When he came to live in Millerton it was as if a tornado had hit the place. Not a violent tornado of course. That would be out of character. Rather it was a methodical and very polite one as Leicester immersed himself in the community (firebrigade, Millerton radio station) and the botanical glories of the coal plateau.

I met him through the local conservation group, but quickly realised we shared another interest - coalfield's history. I have a collection of Marxist books, some bearing the names of long-dead communist miners. Marx's Capital is hard enough to read, but Anti-Duhring by Engels is a shocker. It's all theory and counter-theory, intensely academic, and to most mortals, barely decipherable. I've never got past the first chapter. But Leicester read it cover to cover and enjoyed it.

I went on several walks around the moonscape of Stockton Mine with Leicester and his dog Red. We did it when the mine was on holiday, at New Year and Easter.

The place has an unusual botany, and Leicester's probing revealed several new species of alpine herbs. I could see the pain the opencast mining caused him - it's not just the famous Mt Augustus snail that's headed for extinction.

Leicester became a regular at Buller Conservation Group meetings but one day announced he wouldn't be coming anymore. The conflict between miners and greenies was too much for him. I felt it went back to his vicar days - it's not a vicars job to have enemies.

Despite missing meetings, Leicester kept us up with all the mining gossip and supported the young people of the Save Happy Valley Coalition with their protest occupation. But I know he felt overwhelmed by the Machine that is Solid Energy. His 'Lament For a Landscape' assumes the destruction of Happy Valley.

Leicester loved the Coast - he'd been here often on holiday as a child. And he told me his Coast-born father never fully acclimatised to living in Canterbury.

I went to a couple of Leicester's poetry readings is Westport. I felt he was very happy writing for a small community. Any wider recognition was a bonus.

I loved his stories - told with a glint in his eye and his special economy of language. The one that comes to mind was when he swapped parishes for six months with a vicar from Sheffield in England. The Sheffield parish was very poor - this was brought home to Leicester when he got sick and joined the depressing queue outside a doctors surgery in the winter cold.

His misery wasnt helped when he found he wasnt being paid - the English vicar had retained his old salary while also being paid in New Zealnd and saw no need to change the arrangement.

Pete Lusk

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Meet the new rock Gods

Dead Men Rising is the rather ambitious name that Muzzlehatch, Andrew 'fast hands' McCully and I have given to the band we formed in a smoky bach near Muriwai Beach a couple of weeks back. Last Wednesday, after prodigous amounts of pre-production boozing, we recorded our first 'EP' - three improvised ditties which you can listen to and download here.

Andrew and Muzzlehatch are the engine room of the band, which is perhaps another way of saying that, unlike yours truly, they can actually play instruments:
Muzzlehatch is quite keen to prove that he can read, as well: But who needs to be a guitar god or a nerd when you can rock the mike like this?
Would-be groupies can leave their details in the comments box...

Friday, July 07, 2006

Odds and sods

While I'm in no danger of getting a life, I have been busier than usual this week and haven't had as much time as I would have liked for blogging. In lieu of a proper post today, here are some links to some interesting stuff I've been sneaking a look at lately, but don't have time to introduce properly.

William Lewis made a nice comment on my review of Althusser's 'new' book last week; there's a review of his own book, Louis Althusser and the Traditions of French Marxism, over at the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews site.

The Guardian Books page features an article on google's plan to digitise the books and journals of several leading academic libraries and make them available for free online. Richard Wray and Dan Milmo present the controversy the plan has created as the result of a clash of interests between google and book publishers, but don't writers have something to do with books somewhere?

Guardian Books is also running a capsule biography of Harold Pinter, the man who has made a remarkable surge in this blog's Greatest Living Writer poll, much to the consternation of Jack Ross.

Finally, if I might be allowed a quick bit of self-advertising, I'll mention that a link to my essay on the redoubtable Graham Lindsay has been added to Lindsay's author page at the New Zealand Electronic Centre, apparently at the suggestion of the great man himself. Ta Graham.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

More than pain: Leicester Kyle 1937-2006

When I met Leicester Kyle for the first time he was wearing a leather jacket and a broad-brimmed leather hat and stroking a long white beard. He looked like a cross between a religious prophet and a genteel bikie, and neither religious types nor bikies were common sights at the Dead Poets Bookshop's Friday night poetry readings. Leicester soon became a fixture of the late '90s Auckland literary scene, turning up at readings, book launches and conferences, and invariably drawing respectful but bemused attention from Bohemian hipsters and literary politicians alike.

It's not difficult to appreciate the reason for the attention Leicester attracted. Kiwi writers are, by and large, a dull lot. The days when popular philistinism and government persecution moulded us into interesting shapes are long gone. Nowadays we are encouraged by friendly teachers at primary and secondary school, allowed to study 'creative writing' at university, then provided with safe middle class jobs as academics or publishers' assistants or librarians when we graduate. We marry other writers, settle in safe leafy suburbs like Grey Lynn or Te Aro Valley, write about our cute children and our greying hair, and take yearly holidays in Greece or Thailand. Like I say, we're a boring lot. But Leicester Kyle wasn't dull like us: he was emphatically and effortlessly different. He had come to writing late, by a circuitous and sometimes bizarre path.

After a childhood marked by the Great Depression and by the suicide of both his parents, Leicester trained first as a botanist and then as an Anglican priest. Over several decades he and his wife Miriel ministered to communities as far apart as Banks Peninsula and India. After they retired and moved to Auckland Leicester began to write poetry, and Miriel was stricken with the cancer that would kill her in 1997.

In his fine tribute to Leicester, Jack Ross reveals that it was the old vicar's idea to establish the regular poetry discussion evenings that began at the London Bar in 1997 and continue today in the more sedate surroundings of Galbraith's Alehouse. I don't know whether it was Jack or Leicester who chose the London Bar as a venue back in 1997, but whoever it was may well have been motivated by a desire to forestall the labyrinthine monologues that tend to occur whenever poets are given a captive audience and a regular supply of alcohol. In those heady pre-smokefree days the London Bar was so noisy on Friday nights that even Richard Taylor in full swing after a dozen Lion Reds couldn't avoid interruption, as the wannabe Coltrane in the resident jazz band reached for a higher note, or a girl in a white miniskirt spilt red wine over Hamish Dewe. In the London Bar on a Friday night there was always a surfeit of reasons not to pay close attention to anyone's tabletalk. When Leicester spoke, though, everybody always listened. That quiet and wry yet solemn voice somehow made the jazz and the miniskirted girls disappear.

When Leicester spoke it was usually to tell a story, and the events in most of his stories took place decades ago, in obscure places like Okains Bay or the wilds of Bengal. Despite or because of their settings, I always felt that Leicester's stories were intended as urgent parables, as gestures toward some moral lesson that needed learning. Yet story after story seemed to evade easy interpretation, to frustrate the urge to moralise. Leicester's tales were at once unforgettable and elusive. Nearly a decade later, there are a couple that I still recall almost word for word.

Leicester's Story of the Young Man in the Gutter

This happened when I had only recently been ordained a priest and was full of a desire to serve God and humanity. I was hurrying down a busy Christchurch street through the spring sunshine on my way to an appointment when I almost tripped over a young man in a black trenchcoat who had seated himself in the gutter. His eyes were bloodshot, there was a brown stain around his mouth, and he was shaking feebly. 'Are you alright?' I asked. 'You look like life has dealt you a harsh blow' I added, as I looked at him with what I am sure was an expression of sincere concern. 'I was about to say the same thing to you' he replied, staring back at me calmly.

Leicester's Story of the Corpse on the Roof Rack

A colleague of mine and his new wife were using their honeymoon to drive around a remote and beautiful part of northern Bengal, but the young bride took ill and died before they could find medical help. He decided he would have to return her body to her family, who lived on the other side of India, in a little village south of Bombay, so that they could help him organise a funeral. But his car was very small, too small to spread a body out in, and he was forced to put his wife's body on the roof rack, wrapped in the mattress they had been sleeping on during their trip. For three days he drove across India, stopping only for a few hours' sleep on the side of a dusty road in the centre of the country. When he arrived at his wife's family's home he climbed out of the car with a tired sigh of sad relief. He turned to the roof rack to undo the rope he had tied the mattress around his wife's body with, only to see that the mattress had been stolen.

It seems to me that these stories capture something of the worldview that would assume sharper focus in Leicester's best poems. Leicester Kyle's world is a place where love and horror, order and chaos, life and death are balanced precariously against one another:

as if there were no town
nor warm things in it

just the jungle
on the first day

In Leicester's world, heroic efforts are made by humans to impose order on reality, but the very extent of the schemas that men and women build up - systems of theological argument, or moral justification, or botanical and zoological classificiation - betray the ever-present threat of chaos and death. Ultimately, chaos enters into and undermines attempts to impose order on the world - as Leicester knew only too well, botanical classification and theological explication both succumb to the chaos of subdivision and conjecture, as the human mind wrestles unsuccessfully with the infinite complexity and fluidity of reality:

We walk on a meniscus
under it is silence, darkness
depths we have no means to plumb

But if there is chaos in the order that humanity creates, there may also be order in the chaos of nature. Like Hopkins, a poet he admired, Leicester struggles to read the universe as scripture, to explicate its infinite details into revelation. Leicester's poetry is attentive to the way that chaos of nature can gve way suddenly to a brief mysterious order: he notices the way the symmetry of a fern can rise out of the rubble of the forest floor, and the way that the churning chaos of the ocean can throw up the sudden perfection of a wave.

Leicester's oeuvre is marked by an unresolved tension between the effort to impose order on the world and a yearning to surrender to the world. The equanimity with which Leicester greeted his death from a cancer of the bone marrow does not surprise me. One of the darker themes of his poetry is the role of death as the final solution to the shortcomings of all human attempts to control reality:

Making makes mistakes,
as in making us
who make ruin

Why did Leicester Kyle begin to write poetry in his seventh decade? By the time he retired to Auckland he had enjoyed a memorable career that had seen him intimately involved in the lives of half a dozen different communities. He had been a social worker and a spiritual advisor for hundreds of people. Why would a man with his breadth of experience suddenly start sweating over where he put words on a page, reading to tiny audiences at Bohemian bars, and placing poems in little literary magazines?

We may detect, in the poems Leicester wrote during his years in Auckland, a reaction to the role he had played for so long as a minister. The Auckland poems are frequently full of surreal imagery and situations, and show a fascination with sin, violence and death. In a sense, they are 'anti-sermons': wildly personal poems written to meet the spiritual needs of the priest, not the priest's flock.

'Heteropholis' is the best of the Auckland poems, and it shows the strange territory Leicester was mapping in the second half of the nineties. Written as the interior monologue of an angel which has been turned into a lizard and set down in a glass tank in modern-day Auckland, the fifty-part poem is filled with exact and unsympathetic observations of a minute yet representative piece of the city:

My caregiver has no female. From obser-
vation of his ways (behold they
are so various) I have learned
of pleasures denied my reptilian

He grows amorous as the barometer falls,
which is often at full moon. His
thighs taughten. Sensing from
my wooden perch I see him fes-
tinate as the day goes until at
dark he rings for a Working Girl

It is a small tragedy that 'Heteropholis' has not yet found a professional publisher. With its disgusted, fascinated stare at the city most Kiwis love to hate, the poem reads like a bizarre successor to works like ARD Fairburn's 'Dominion' and James K Baxter's 'Ode to Auckland'.

At the end of the nineties Leicester surprised the many friends he had made in Auckland by moving to Millerton, an old coal mining town on the West Coast of the South Island. Joining the local volunteer fire brigade, publishing poems about local people and issues, conducting botanical expeditions through West Coast forests and swamps, and throwing himself into the campaign to stop the Happy Valley coal mine, Leicester soon became something of a celebrity in the Buller region of the West Coast. In a letter he sent me for a recent issue of brief, Leicester explained the new role he had found for himself amongst the Coasters:

[O]ne does like to write for a known readership...being poet to a defined and dometic community has its attractions, a sense of professional belonging...In Buller there is a great fondness for verse but little for poetry, so I stand alone and unassailed. My observable literary ability, my success in conservation and botany, my involvement in civic affairs, have all pushed me into a certain notoreity in the region which, were I so ambitious, would give me satisfaction...

We can say, then, that Leicester's move to Buller saw him once again assuming some of the roles he had played as a minister. The relative isolation of the Auckland years had been left behind, and not unsurprisingly the tone of Leicester's poetry changed. The best of the West Coast poems bring the alienation of 'Heteropholis' into conflict with a sense of community, and an empathy with the people of that community.

With its storms, wild coastline, industrial ruins and decaying towns and villages, the Buller region offered Leicester a metaphor for the precariousness of life, but the harshness of the region had created a sense of community that was absent in Auckland. In his 2005 book Breakers Leicester wrote about the erosion of Buller's coastline by a violent sea, but also celebrated the efforts of locals to stop the sea and other hostile forces - economic, as well as natural - from destroying their communities.

One of the most memorable of Leicester's late works is 'Death of a Landscape', which is at once an elegy for his daughter, who committed suicide in 2004, and a cry of protest against the Happy Valley coal mine. Handwritten on topographical maps of Happy Valley, 'Death of a Landscape' expresses a collective as well as personal loss:

But it was more than pain.
So much love
polished practiced honed
lost dead buried,
then blown like pollen
from trees in the wind.

I felt the some of the same sense of loss when I learned of Leicester's death yesterday.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Towards a Clean Start

Like The Muppets, this blog occasionally features guest stars. Today's guest star is trade unionist Kirsty McCully, and she's far cooler than John Denver, Diana Ross or the other washed-up stars Kermit and his buddies used to drag out of the woodwork. Here's an article she's written for the forthcoming issue of the Workers Charter newspaper.

Workers fight for a Clean Start

Cleaners work for some of the richest multinational companies in the world but are some of the poorest paid service workers in the global economy. Every night in every big city around the globe, thousands of cleaners work late into the evening emptying trash, vacuuming floors, and cleaning toilets. Cleaners are an indispensable part of the global economy, but all too often they are treated like dirt by the bosses who rely on them.

In Australia and New Zealand, though, cleaners have started fighting for better pay and conditions. In April more than 1600 cleaners and supporters gathered in 10 Australasian cities to make the following pledge:

“We, the cleaners and community supporters, agree to join together to lift standards in the cleaning industry. We call on building owners and the cleaning contractors to make a clean start. We will not stop raising our voices until we win a fair deal for all cleaners. Can we do it? YES WE CAN!”

Since the Clean Start campaign was launched, cleaners and their supporters have been turning this pledge into action by rallying and picketing outside buildings owned by companies like AMP, Macquarie Bank, Commonwealth Bank and Deutsche Bank. These companies own the office buildings where cleaners work and cleaners are saying that they need to take responsibility for the cleaning work done in their buildings.

In May AMP was targeted by protests across Australasia. AMP is the largest building owner in Auckland and Wellington, and in Auckland, cleaners picketing its Price Waterhouse Coopers Tower (valued at $216.4 million) told tenants and the public that their pay was below the poverty line and that they wouldn't be ignored anymore.

A highlight of the Clean Start campaign has been this year's International Justice for Cleaners Day. International Justice for Cleaners Day was established after janitors who cleaned office buildings in Los Angeles were beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration against a multi-national cleaning company, ISS/Manchester. To remember that day janitors and supporters take action every June 15 in cities around the world.

On June 15 this year more than 200 cleaners and supporters rallied and marched in Auckland and Wellington to protest low hourly pay rates, short and broken shifts, and unrealistic work rates. Clean Start supporter and former Polynesian Panther Reverend Mua Strickson Pua spoke about the work done by ‘the Mums’ in the Pacific Island community saying “the Mums work hard, they’re the backbone of our communities and they deserve justice and respect”.

After hearing Pua speak cleaners awarded the Golden Toilet Brush Award to building owner Allco. Allco, who have links with the Kiwi-owned Strategic Finance Group, had refused to meet with cleaners, but since they received their golden brush they caved in and agreed to sign up to the Clean Start principles. With the many other multinational companies scrambling to sign up to the campaign to avoid being the focus of action, local building owners and contractors will be the next focus of the campaign, unless they meet with cleaners to discuss their concerns.

The Clean Start campaign still has a long way to go. Cleaners are up against some of the giants of Australasian capitalism as well as multinational companies, and we all know that capitalism only concedes what it’s forced to. We need to organise at the grassroots to ensure that those making the profits out of cleaners’ work can’t ignore their needs any longer.

What can you do?

Make a commitment to Clean Start by getting involved in the campaign. Whether you’re a cleaner, a union member who wants to get active in the campaign or a member of the public:

Support the cleaners’ next International Day of Action on July 20th Auckland: 12:30pm, meet at Britomart, at the foot of Queen St Wellington: 12noon, meet at Parliament, rally conciding with EPMU 90 Days action.

Come to an organising committee meeting – contact the union office for details of the next meeting

Talk to cleaners you know or work with about their job and whether it could be better – encourage them to take a stand and get involved

Ask one of the Clean Start committee to come and talk about the campaign at your union, community or workplace meeting and talk with groups you work with about how your organisation could be a part of the campaign

Ring the union office and talk to an organiser about what the cleaners are doing
Talk to your community leaders about how they can help cleaners win a fair deal

For more information contact: Kirsty McCully on 09 375 2687 or

Why we need a Clean Start

In the last issue of Workers Charter Don Franks argued that the Clean Start campaign was not worth supporting because it was not radical enough.

While the SFWU is appreciative of Don’s contribution to our union in the days when he was a cleaner, he ignores the current weak state of the union in the cleaning industry, the low morale and vulnerability of many cleaners, and the strength of the companies that exploit cleaners. For cleaners, the Clean Start campaign is a step in the right direction, not a final destination. A long journey starts with a single step, and sometimes that first step can be the most important.

Don argues that the Clean Start principles are about 'disciplining' workers, because they promise that cleaners will 'maintain high standards of service'.

As Don should know, cleaners already provide a high standard of service - what they are demanding is better pay and conditions in return for their service.

Don discusses the 70c increase over two years that cleaners won last year. He points out that this increase is far below what cleaners need, and suggests that cleaners should fight for pay parity with their Aussie comrades.

The SFWU agrees that last year's pay increase was pathetic, and would love to see Kiwi cleaners win pay parity. But, as Don himself notes, union membership among cleaners is at its lowest point ever.

Cleaners can't win a big fight like the fight for pay parity unless they unionise more of their sector, mobilize their comunities and become more confident and organised. Clean Start is intended as a step in that direction - it's an attempt to bulk up the union so that it has the muscle to fight for bigger and better things in the future.

The Clean Start principles seek to ensure that contractors hired to provide cleaning services commit to providing better jobs with better pay and conditions, and understand their obligations to their workforce.

These goals might seem modest to Don, but if they are achieved they will have a massive positive impact on cleaners. They will lift many cleaners out of poverty, give them more time to spend with their families, and make them more confident and more capable of fighting for bigger and better things.

If Don and his readers need any more convincing about the need to support the Clean Support campaign, then they should talk to some of the members who have thrown themselves into that campaign, sacrificing precious leisure hours and in some cases precious income as well.

Here is a statement from a rank and file cleaner involved in the campaign:

My name is Vai, I’m a cleaner in Wellington and I have a family to feed and put through school. I earn low wages - I only get enough each week to pay the bills.
I never really thought about what it’s like working night or day or both - we need the money so I just fit it in. I’ve got 7 kids and I’m a single parent so my family has to help me out too.

My job is a long way away from home - I had to buy a car just so I could get to work and get around at night. I always end up doing extra work – sometimes because people get sick a lot and don’t show up for work, and sometimes just because there aren’t enough of us to do the job in the hours they give us.

The staff turnover is bad and the bosses make it worst by throwing new staff in the deep end so they don’t last long, and so it goes on.

The management change all the time too – I’ve had 3 bosses since I started on this site and none of them know as much as me about the work because I’ve been a cleaner for 15 years.

The bosses need to understand that I do this work because I would like a better life for my kids. A better education for them. I do not like receiving the benefit I would rather they pay me a decent wage.

That is why I put up with their shit! It's for my children. “Out e le mano e ola ae lau fanau ise olaga ausage ma ola falo’lo” I do not want my children to grow up living a life dependent on others.

When I get home I’m tired and I ache, but I have to keep going to look after the kids. Quality of life? HA! Never thought of it that way - I just work and look after the family. What a life eh.

Yeah I’d like my job to be different – better hours, more money, more time to do the work. The best thing about my job is my workmates. and we can see that if we get together and people help us, we can fight to get better jobs and better pay.