Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Blogging as internationalism

In the First World War, soldiers met in no man's land on Christmas day. Today, members of belligerent nations - civvies, as well as soliders - meet in cyberspace.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Testament of the Flying Fox

I've just watched The New Oceania, Shirley Horrocks' documentary about the career and influence of the Samoan novelist and poet Albert Wendt. Like her earlier movie about Allen Curnow, Horrocks' protrait of Wendt is low-key and warm, a testament to her ability to win her subject's affection. The New Oceania follows Wendt from his childhood in an Edenic Samoa to an unhappy adolesence in a provinical New Zealand boarding school, through a career that has seen him writing and teaching in Apia, Suva, Auckland, and most recently Hawaii.

If I have a criticism of the film it concerns Horrocks' apparent failure to press Wendt on some tricky subjects - we learn only a little about the man's atheism, which must have been hugely controversial in such a religious society as Samoa, and we learn nothing about the details of the disaffection with postcolonial politics that apparently led him to leave first Samoa and then - after Sitiveni Rabuka's 1987 coup - Fiji. It is strange that a man who has been so important to the establishment of a postcolonial Pacific literature should appear so reticent about the course of postcolonial Pacific politics.

No one could accuse Wendt of being reticent about the colonial occupation that Samoa had to suffer for forty-seven years at the hands of New Zealand. His large oeuvre includes many withering passages which point up the incompetence and ignorance of that occupation, and the racist way that Samoans who have ventured to God's own country itself have been treated. Some of the most powerful parts of The New Oceania come when Wendt recounts the treatment he received as a lonely young man in cold and unfriendly Taranaki. 'There was one teacher who called me Black Sambo, but he didn't really mean it in an offensive way' he says with massive restraint. A powerful clip from the half-forgotten film adaption of Wendt's first novel, Sons for the Return Home, reminds us of the dawn raids that the Muldoon government subjected Samoan immigrants to in the 1970s.

Horrocks' film also includes several clips from Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, a 1990 adaption of Wendt's novel about the son of a Samoan noble who rebels against both his own traditional society and the capitalism and Christianity that colonists have brought to Samoa. Wendt's anti-hero forms a gang, burns down a church, and turns his hand to poetry, making himself into a sort of Samoan Rimbaud.

In the last issue of brief I published a long interview that Martin Rumsby did with Martyn Sanderson, the man who directed Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree, and with Sanderson's partner Wanjiku Kiarie. Since brief is an offline journal I thought I'd reproduce Martyn's and Kiarie's recollections of the film here.

MR: I noticed a mention of FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE in John O'Shea's memoir. Was it a difficult project to get off the ground?

Sanderson: Yes. I had suggested it to John (O'Shea) who replied that it was time Samoans started making their own films. About 1978, for the first time, I consciously thought, I wanted to find a story to make a feature film of and started deliberately reading around, rather than hoping for some intuitive flash of personal inspiration. The story that struck me enormously was FLYING FOX. One element that really struck was the last will and testament of Tangata, the Flying Fox. It seemed an extraordinary piece of gallows humour. It had the qualities that I identified with in the Theatre of the Absurd, a Zen Buddhist meeting of humour and tragedy and Existentialism.

MR: Unusual contexts for a New Zealand film.

Sanderson: Absolutely extraordinary. And the dialogue, a Samoan patois in English as a vivid use of English in new ways. It was also highly condensed. A novella, about thirty pages long. Unlike an expansive novel, converting it into a movie didn't involve trimming out all the literary decoration. It was bare bones and very visual ... I started working on a proposal to film it which I put to the New Zealand Film Commission pretty early on. My timing was awful because it was just when Paul Maunder was filming SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME (1979) and the Commission had no idea whether that film was going to work or not so they were not going to commit themselves to another Samoan story by Albert Wendt. But I kept working on it, doing a radio adaptation which was broadcast. Then Aileen O'Sullivan and Lani Tupu did a drama workshop in Samoa (around 1981). I gave them the radio adaptation of FLYING FOX as a text to work with. It was translated into Samoan and used as part of that workshop ... Several years later, around 1987 or 1988, I finally wrote a complete feature script which I submitted to the Film Commission. They turned it down. Then I got in touch with (the film producer) Graham McLean, who had worked in Samoa, and he concocted a budget then twisted the arm of the Film Commission. It took eleven years.

MR: It is a universal theme, a young man's search for self, set in late Twentieth Century Polynesia.

Sanderson: It was quite consciously Existentialist on Albert Wendt's part. At the time he wrote FLYING FOX he was quite influenced by Camus. It is very much about the clash between progress and traditional Samoan values. It is complex because this upstart rebel who is saying, "I am my God" is also attempting to uphold ancient Samoan values against his father whose God has become the God of money. The other element that appealed to me, and that I felt licensed me to do it, in a sense, was the influence of cinema on Samoan culture.

MR: The film FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE was awarded Best Screenplay at the Tokyo International Film Festival. What was involved in adapting Albert Wendt's novel into a screenplay?

Sanderson: I think that the unique thing about this particular story was that there was a mythological depth to it which I was able to fill in because Albert had incorporated the FLYING FOX novella into a longer book called LEAVES OF THE BANYAN TREE. So there was a background and sequel to the characters which I was able to weave in. Apart from that the adaptation is pretty much all the technical business of storytelling ... the high points and shaping scenes for climaxes and so on.

MR: You try to finish each scene off on a high point?

Sanderson: You try to keep driving it ahead ... Because the literary model was so condensed it was a lot easier to adapt than most novels would be.

MR: It is unusual, in a medium that we normally see in terms of Hollywood action spectacles to see an entirely different cultural reality represented on film. Was it difficult to bridge the cultural divide between Palangi (European) New Zealand and Samoa?

Sanderson: I think Albert said that living in Samoa is a bit like Shakespearian times. There is a feeling that life and death are fairly close. They are not shrouded in all kinds of disguises. We had a diplomatic interaction with the locals. It was a matter of being aware of your own ignorance and the depth of feeling that could be aroused (by misunderstandings) and finding local people who understood where we were coming from and were sympathetic to Albert and the process.

MR: Was there a lot of pride that the film was made there?

Sanderson: Quite ambiguous. There had been unhappiness about SONS FOR THE RETURN HOME (1979). Because of the sex scenes. Albert has great mana but he is the only Samoan in history who doesn't go to church. They weren't sure whether to be proud of it ... We shot some scenes in the High School and it looks pretty obvious that it needs a bit of paint. They were a bit offended that we should show that. They want to show their best face to the world. They weren't quite sure what the film was going to say about Samoa.

MR: Clint Eastwood once said that actors directing themselves in their own movies tend to under utilize themselves. Given your electrifying performance as Commissioner Towers in FLYING FOX, could a case have been made to expand his role in the film, making him a more prominent character?

Sanderson: No. If we had a bigger budget I would have probably brought over another actor from New Zealand ... I have played one or two racists. People who don't have a strong political sense will try to soften the racist. I have a pretty clear image, not based on real life, or any particular person, of the kind of petty colonial mind that this man would have had. It is a small part.

MR: You have often appeared in films as a distinctive character actor, a rather mean spirited New Zealander. I think of you as Len Demler in BEYOND REASONABLE DOUBT, the cinema manager in William Keddell's THE MAINTENANCE OF SILENCE (1985) and Commissioner Towers in FLYING FOX IN A FREEDOM TREE. How do such characters come about?

Sanderson: It is a sort of composite of people I've resented.

MR: How does an actor create a character?

Sanderson: There is a classic answer which I heard from a Chinese teacher at a workshop in London. The teacher said, "You western actors think that you get into character. No. No. No. Empty yourself and let the character get into you." There are times when I think some actors feel that they are possessed. I don't have any worries about that. I am not suggesting that happens ... There is a trend in individual, psychology based training now which ignores one of the sources of creating a character which is drawing on all the examples you have seen, on stage or screen. Not to say, "Now I am going to do a Lawrence Olivier or a Tony Hopkins." You have seen a representation of certain kinds of characters and what you will create will owe as much to those representations as to real life experience.

MR: What does an actor expect from a director?

Sanderson: I assumed, before I ever worked on screen, that the role of the director would be to have an overview so that he knew how each scene fitted and what the pace would be and how big or small to make your performance.

MR: What does a director expect from an actor?

Sanderson: Understanding of the part. Obviously all the technical things like maintaining your eye line. Someone who will listen and make adjustments.

MR: Some years later you acted in a play TUSITALA staged in Wellington and Christchurch.

Sanderson: Justine Simei-Barton started a Pacific Theatre. She had been intrigued by a Samoan tradition known as FALE AITU, House of Spirits. It is like stand up comedy and it is a living tradition in Samoa. The House of Spirits is an excuse, "It wasn't me that said that satirical thing about the President. It was the spirits."

MR: It is like a jester?

Sanderson: It is exactly the role of a jester. Anyway, TUSITALA is a play based on Robert Louis Stevenson's involvement in Samoan politics. The heart of the story is this, Stevenson is involved in political turmoil, supporting certain chiefs against other chiefs. Some of the people he has supported are imprisoned by the joint German and British Government. Whilst in jail they put on a performance of their version of DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE. But as they do this FALE AITU performance one of the characters becomes possessed with the spirit of MR HYDE. The Samoans around Stevenson say,
"Stop him! Stop him!"
But Stevenson says,
"I can't stop him. What are you talking about?"
"Well, you created him."
"No. No. He is just a performer."
"No he's not. He is the spirit you created. Now do something about it."
They push Stevenson forward until he challenges Mr Hyde and produces the potion that will turn him back to Dr Jeykll.
It raised for me really strange questions about fiction and metaphor and drama. Stevenson himself wrote that what he called Brownies would come to him in his sleep and give him stories. He just had to wake up and write them down. What Justine was asking, in effect, is this, were they spirits or weren't they? Stevenson wrote about them exactly in the way a Samoan would talk about spirit possession or conversation with the spirits. But whereas Samoans, to this day, are very conscious of the dangers of immediate spiritual possession and various other phenomena which express themselves in quite extreme physical phenomena but which are known to be of spiritual derivation. To them, reading Stevenson talking about his Brownies was exactly in that territory. So what is he talking about in saying it is fiction? What is fiction?

MR: Something like the Australian aboriginal notion of Dreamtime that the waking and dreaming worlds feed into each other and are of equal value.

Kiarie: Westerners refuse to accept that dreamtimes or spiritual appearances do happen in other cultures. Westerners believe that they don't have any of it.

MR: If you film a continuous piece of Maori oratory and then cut it, for purposes of representation, or economy, is it still oratory?

Kiarie: You mean when it comes to editing?

MR: Yes.

Sanderson: It is like, "Sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words can never hurt me." What? Words do things. They just don't say things, they do things.

MR: I just finished writing an essay on, language does not speak for us. It does not even know us.

Sanderson: That is a western point of view. Westerners don't understand the power of words.

MR: Was TUSITALA the first instance of Palangi (European) and Samoans appearing together on a professional stage in New Zealand?

Sanderson: There was a play by John Kneubuhl*, a Samoan television scriptwriter in Hollywood who, one day, took all of his scripts and dumped them in his Beverly Hills garden, burnt the lot of them then went back to Samoa and wrote, THINK OF A GARDEN. This play was set at the time of the Mau uprising (12 men were killed by New Zealand forces on the 29 December, 1929 in an uprising in Apia), which his father or grandfather had been involved in. We did it in Auckland several years ago. That was definitely a mix of Samoan and Palangi on stage. In the audience one night was Tupuna Tamasese Tupuola Efi the former Samoan Prime Minister whose great uncle was one of those shot by the New Zealand Police. It is an episode Samoans had not chosen to speak about. Possibly feeling that it was slightly shameful. So putting it on stage was quite an event.

More light on Easter Island history

I posted a couple of months back about the misuse of Easter Island history by Green Party co-leader Norman Russell, an ex-Marxist who now blames overconsumption by ordinary people for most of the world's problems. Leaning on Jared Diamond's recent book Collapse, Russell has been retreading Thor Heyerdahl's myth of a self-destructing Easter Island people to help make his overconsumptionist arguments. In doing so he has wilfully ignored the real history of European depredations that caused massive population and environmental devastation on the island in the nineteenth century.

Now the American Scientist is trumpeting yet more evidence against Heyerdahl's racist myth. Let's hope the exposure this prestigious and popular journal is giving to the real history of Easter Island will help shame Holocaust deniers like Norman Russell into silence.

And while we're on the subject of the shortfalls of Green politics, I'd like to refer y'all to Lenin's Tomb's excellent critique of Greenpeace's latest waste of money.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

'Itching for justice, or maybe just revenge'

I was recently given a copy of The Great War for Civilisation, Robert Fisk's account of his dangerous and frequently rather lonely three decade odyssey around the Middle East's battlefields and capitals. The journey is a hard slog, and Fisk paces himself, which means that the acerbic tone and staccato sentences that mark much of his straight journalism frequently give way to a sort of calm weariness in the face of endless scenes of suffering and injustice. Because of the way that its epic scale can diminish the power of any of its details, the book is perhaps better to dip into than to read in toto.

Here's a passage which resonates with my remarks the other day about the tendency of the Faux News network to make itself a flying column of the US army:

It was in Vietnam that journalists started wearing combat fatigues and carrying weapons - and sometimes shooting those weapons at America's enemies - even though their countries were not officially at war and when they could have carried out their duties without wearing a soldier's clothes. In Vietnam, reporters were murdered because they were reporters.

This tendency of journalists to be part of the story, to play their own theatrical role, took hold only slowly...In the 1991 Gulf War, as we have seen, many correspondents dressed up in their own army costumes - complete with helmets - as if they were members of the 82nd Airborne. In Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2001, something similar happened. Reporters in Peshawar could be seen wearing soft Pashtun hats. Geraldo Rivera of Fox News claimed on television that while in Jalalabad he was carrying a gun. He fully intended to use it, he said on another occasion, to Kill Osama bin Laden. 'I'm feeling more patriotic than at any time in my life, itching for justice, or maybe just revenge', he vouchsafed to the world. 'And this catharsis I've gone through has caused me to reasess what I do for a living'. It was the last straw. The reporter had become a combatant. [pgs 1081-82]

Rivera and his ilk may well be responsible for the situation that Olaf Wiig finds himself in right now.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Reasonable? Not really

An intelligent, very liberal friend forwarded this cartoon to me yesterday under the title 'A reasonable send up?' I hate to be a killjoy, but it seems to me that the images in the toon are anything but reasonable reflections of the reality of Islamist extremism. They seem to owe more to a tradition of xenophobic and - ironically enough - frequently anti-Semitic caricature than to an appreciation of the world today's young alienated Muslims live in.

The cartoon shows a cabal of archaic Arab Muslim elders concocting the latest in a series of nefarious schemes to disrupt Western societies. In fact, most of the Islamist terrorist attacks of the last few years have been the actions of small groups of young, non-Arab men acting in isolation from any sort of 'central command'.

These young men have not been automatons controlled by Osama bin Laden, but sane, intelligent, cosmopolitan people moved to lash out against affluent societies they believe complicit in the ongoing agony of the Middle East and other parts of the Third World. That their response to this agony has taken a reactionary, deeply counterproductive form - that they look to Osama as a hero, rather than to Che Guevara or Frantz Fanon or Ben Bella - is part of the tragedy of an era when the progressive alternative to imperialism represented by secularism and socialism has seemed in many places to have been eclipsed.

The xenophobic response of many Westerners to Islamist terrorism - 40% of Americans now believe that Muslims should have to carry special ID, and attacks on British Muslims have soared since 9/11 - can only ensure more terrorism.

The cartoon my friend sent me alludes to the dreadful suffering endured by British holidaymakers forced to wait for flights to places like Ibiza and Mallorca. I hope some of them used their queue-time to reflect upon the government policies that have enraged so many of the people of the Middle East and the rest of the Third World.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Jill Chan live

Jill Chan will be hitting the stage at the Grand Central Bar - that's 126 Ponsonby Rd - at eight o'clock on Tuesday week - that's the 29th, Muzzlehatch - to read her poetry to an audience of adoring fans, plus anybody else who wants to turn up. Support act is Bronwyn Bryant.

Here's a sample of Jill's work, taken from her blogsite Navel Orange:


When evening comes,
we take our glasses,
break them,
sweep up the shards
to break again

You might have spotted another sample of Jill's work near your your feet recently.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Kiwi Asian voices

Auckland's freebie 'community' newspapers are a pretty miserable bunch: full of advertarticles and reports on golden wedding anniversaries, they are usually only useful if one has run out of lining for the kitty litter box.

Luckily iBall, a new English-language weekly aimed primarily at the city's Asian community, is a different story. The two issues I've seen have between them tackled half a dozen interesting subjects, from the nefarious activities of the Moonie cult in New Zealand to domestic violence against women in immigrant communities to anti-Asian racism in the Pakeha community. And unlike the Granny Herald and most other Kiwi rags, iBall is actually able to find some literate and provocative letters to the editor to print.

Looking at the latest issue of the paper, I am particularly taken by a letter from one Paul AC Teo, who takes issue with contributing editor Lincoln Tan's view that Chinese immigrants needed to do more to adjust to life in New Zealand. The Chinese community in Auckland is often regarded as conservative, and is targeted by right-wing parties like Act and National, but Teo shows a strong awareness of the phoniness of much of the talk from the right about the need to instil 'Western values' in new immigrants to this country. (That's not to say Teo's letter doesn't have its wobbly bits - I find his remark about white women and feminism a bit fishy.)

Since iBall doesn't appear to exist online I've reproduced Teo's piece below.

Conflicting views due to different backgrounds

I would like to comment on the conflicting views between Lincoln Tan and Chinese people, which can be attributed to their different historical, ideological, political and social backgrounds.

Lincoln and I were from former British colonies - Malaysia and Singapore - and were both educated under the British system. Before I came to New Zealand, I was subjected to British (Anglo-Saxon) ethnocentric views about the world - the British were the best people and good colonisers. In the twelve years I have lived in New Zealand, I have had the opportunity to experience, study, reflect and to challenge British colonial propaganda, which had distorted my view for the last forty-five years of my life.

As Asians, we are a vulnerable people subjected to power dynamics in New Zealand's dominant culture. Our young children are called 'Ching Chong' at school. We are stereotyped as 'Asian criminals' and 'bad drivers' in the media although statistically we represent only about 6% of the crime problem as compared with other ethnic groups. Our Asian women are also being sought by white males because they are not a threat to their masculinity, compared to their white female counterparts who espouse feminism.

Recently a dominant white male politician [Don Brash, of course] stated that migrants who opposed New Zealand's bedrock values should not be allowed to stay in this country. Is that democracy? Democracy exists as long as the minority follows the dominant ideology. If threatened, a big hammer will be wielded. For example, when Maori showed their maturity by voting for their own party, what is the repercussion from those in power? The principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, which took years of painful progress to be incorporated into legislation, are going to be removed by the majority in parliament.

Recently I was invited to the independence day celebrations of an African country. A minister said in passing that the British coloniers were at least better than other colonisers. I heard from my Samoan friend that the German treated them better than the New Zealand government. We should engage and hear stories from other ethnic minority groups who have lived in this country a long time to get to know the full reality of life in this country.

Lincoln Tan should understand that the Chinese view is ethnocentric and their experiences are authentic and genuine.

Paul AC Teo
E mail

You can e mail iBall at news@iballmedia.co.nz

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Any excuse...

According to his hosts at the Gow Langsford Gallery, Shane Cotton's new exhibition is about 'the history of cultural exchanges between Maori and Pakeha'. I'm sure that's right, but the floating head motif running through Cotton's eerie new works has me thinking of John Borman's cult classic sci fi flick Zardoz as well as some of the more tragic periods of New Zealand history. Borman's three hour epic features Sean Connery dressed in a red jockstrap playing a character called Zog the Destroyer, and a gaint floating head which has always seemed, to me anyway, to resemble Karl Marx.

Here's one of Cotton's new paintings:

And here's Borman's floating head:

And here's Marx's granite likeness in Highgate Cemetery:

So is Shane Cotton a sci fi fan? And was Borman tilting at Marx when he made the strange film that has thrilled generations of pretentious undergraduates? Or am I just desperate for a chance to post a picture of Sean Connery as Zog the Destroyer? Go and see Cotton at the Gow Langsford and decide for yourself...

Bad company

Anita McNaught was a familiar sight on Kiwi television screens in the 1990s, when she worked as a newsreader and reporter for TVNZ. McNaught receded from view at the end of the 90s, when she went to Britain and landed a plum job with the BBC, but she's lately returned to prominence in this country as the star of a real-life soap opera.

McNaught's husband, a cameraman for Murdoch's Faux News network, was recently kidnapped in Gaza; the campaign to secure his release has seen McNaught making numerous appearances on TV screens in New Zealand and across the Middle East. The fate of Olaf Wiig has managed to rival even the sorry end of the Jonbenet murder investigation and the death of the Maori queen as a news story in this part of the world, but precious little attention has been paid to the circumstances surrounding the abduction of Anita's nearest and dearest.

Over the last month Israel's invasion of Lebanon has been paralleled by a series of attacks on the long-suffering inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, attacks that have claimed the lives of at least two hundred people, the vast majority of them civilians. These killings aroused almost no attention from the same media outlets that have been so excited by McNaught's crisis.

Wiig's kidnappers have been characterised as either fanatical extremists or simple criminals by most of the media, but could the inhabitants of Gaza have a legitimate case against Faux news, which has always acted as an attack dog for the most extreme part of the US and Israeli political establishments, and which has provided its audiences with an unceasingly hostile coverage of the plight of the Palestinian people? Only last week two senior producers for Fox News resigned from their jobs over the network's coverage of Middle East events, telling Murdoch and his mates that 'Not only are you an instrument of the Bush White House, and Israeli propaganda, you are warmongers with no sense of decency, nor professionalism.'

Wiig was kidnapped along with reporter Steve Centanni, who has been a Faux News hound since the channel's launch in 1996. During the invasion of Iraq - or 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' as Faux News called it, in their normal objective manner - he was embedded with US Navy Seals. Centanni had filed this report from Gaza on the same day he was abducted, in which he managed to justify the deaths of three more Palestinian civilians (not that you would know they were civilians, of course).

When does one stop being a journalist and begin to be a warmonger, and a target for a people resisting imperialism?

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Photos from Maketu Pa site

When I blogged about Maketu Pa the other day I had to do so without posting the photos that my secret collaborator 'C-burger' (it's a nickname, donchaknow?) had taken of the place. Now the good fight against technology has been won, and I'm able to post some of the photos.

Here's why Maketu Pa was so valued as a lookout:

Even in these days of winter smog, you can see all the way across the Manukau Harbour to the Waitakere Ranges on the other side of Auckland.

This photo shows some of the earthworks - kumara pits, terraces, and perhaps a tranverse ditch - which can be seen near the 'summit' of the pa:

Here's a view of the cliff on the north side of the 'summit', which gives you an idea of why Maketu was such a great natural fortress:

Here's the view east from the top of the pa, across the site of the old settlement of Peach Hill. A couple of stone walls built by the early settlers can be made out amidst the late afternoon shadows:

Jack's picks

I've just received an electronic copy of an anthology of poetry Jack Ross has assembled for the students of the creative writing course he teaches on the Albany Campus of Massey University. Jack's anthology includes my poem 1918, which looks rather shaky beside work by the likes of Allen Curnow, WH Auden, and the streetfighting Kevin Ireland.

Here's Allen Curnow's marvellous contribution to Jack's anthology, with a couple of hyperlinks added to help foreign readers:

The Game of Tag

Graffito, Lone Kauri Road

Seven thigh-high
hamstring-high posts,

embedded two
metres and cemented

in, where the side
of the road burst

into bird space,
tree-toppling all

that plunging way
down. A clean-cut

horizon shapes
daylight. A gap.

Where the sea glares
back at the land’s

shiftiness. Hefty
planks mounted strap-

wise, post to post,
invite my spray-

gun-toting rival
to sign A-F-R-I-K-A

who will have caught

up with himself
at the next bend

where the road slipped
again, and again

tagged the white paint-
edness of a new

barrier A-F-R-I-K-A
P-O-E-T-93. The paint

is for the poetry.
And signed off. Skid

marks in the gravel.
And powered the old

Falcon around, like
a bat out of Hell. Gave

Death the fingers.
Shook the dreadlocks

from his eyes, for
his best shot. Darkly

lets fly, spattering

name after name.
A crumbling road.

Where have they all
gone, with CICERO

BEASTIE and me
and which of us

leads the way down
post and plank not-

withstanding, car-
apaced in Korean

steel, to be wrapped
round a bole two

hundred years thick,
two hundred feet

below. One wild
wheelie and we’re off.

Rain-forest soon
repairs its ruins.

Dead men’s dental
records and cellphones

tell no lies. Rust
finishes the job

(almost). One chip
of red Perspex

under a stone
in the stream was

his (whose?) tail-light.

writes, and I quote

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Chavez versus the clown

A few months back I blogged about Teodoro Petkoff, the one-time communist guerrilla who became Minister for Privatisation, aka Planning, in the '90s administration of Rafael Caldera, and who was planning to take on Hugo Chavez in December's Presidential elections. Now Petkoff, who was never able to leave the margin of error in opinion polls, has pulled up his tent, much to the delight of the Venezuelan right, which had been outraged by the opportunistic support he recently decided to give to some of the social programmes the Chavez government has introduced since it came to power in 1999.

Petkoff's withdrawal from the race leaves a professional clown named Benjamin Rausseo as Chavez's chief opponent. The more serious parts of the opposition will rally around Manuel Rosales, the governor of oil-rich Zulia, the only Venezuelan state not controlled by the coalition led by Chavez's Fifth Republic Movement. There is no sign, though, that Rosales can muster mass support outside the labour aristocracy of Zulia. I see the miserable state of the Venezuelan right as another sign that the real political opposition to Chavez will emerge from within the Bolivarian revolution.

Down in Brazil, a left-wing candidate is challenging President Lula's betrayal of the membership of his Workers Party.

Not up to it? (More on borders)

The other day I saw a report on BBC news about Israel's plans to push its army north to the Litani River, around thirty kilometres into Lebanon. I'd heard the Litani River mentioned numerous times before, as a key strategic objective of this and previous invasions of Lebanon. The BBC told me that 'Every invader since the Pharaohs has aimed for this river', and showed some footage of the river shot from a moving car.

What amazed me was not the arrogance of the Israelis in thinking they could fight their way past Hizbollah to the river in a few days, but the sight of the 'river' itself. It was a narrow muddy stream - only a little wider than some of the streams that flow out of the hills behind my parents' farm, and narrower than Slippery Creek, the main waterway in the Drury area. In New Zealand, nobody would dignify something of the Litani's width and volume with the word 'river'!

I suppose I had expected something a little more grand from such an historic waterway. The great New Zealand poet Kendrick Smithyman had a similar feeling when he visited the Mangatawhiri Stream, which flows into the Waikato River near the town of Mercer just south of Auckland. The Mangatawhiri was the aukati, or boundary, which was crossed by the British army when it invaded the independent Maori kingdom in the Waikato on 12th of July 1863. (You can see a photo of me looking daft at the point where the invasion took place if you visit this post and scroll down. The Mangatawhiri looks about as wide as the Litani...)

Smithyman connected the underwhelming nature of the Mangatawhiri with the person of General Cameron, the man who led the invasion of the Waikato without much enthusiasm. After the war 'Camerontown' was proclaimed on some of the land confiscated from the Maori near the Waikato River - like Peach Hill, the place would become a 'ghost town' and a curiousity on maps.

Mangatawhiri Stream

Shabbier than a frontier ought to show,
this stream (one understands) could be crossed
by a General getting on in years and not up to
his job, stumping ahead with his walking stick
to lance all nodes of ambush. Stand prepared
soon to hear his enemy’s retiring signalled.

Nevertheless, for all that it was shabby,
crossing sped as sharp debate in families
as any compensation in coined suffering
which is required by largest rigid boundaries
dedicated to statecraft, when trespassed
by fashionable regiments or mercenaries.

So much talk provides its event; at some point
invention matures as act. Men who have been here
(trenching, fascining, marching, countermarching)
now are moved there – they need simply a run with a jump
across the stream. A few will not be
jumping back.
Rush blown away, brown wattle
prevailing at their swamp’s embankment, refer
the price of loss to men readily defeated.
Militiaman or Regular, whose was that voice
I thought was heard as I walked my beat, years past,
in blank late night of an early winter
discomforted by antics of teatree silhouetted
against a false crest? Voice I’d have sworn to,
declaring It is over. They go away.

The stream cuts furtively into peat swamp,
debouching on the swaggering River.
It was never designed to be politically
important; merely, wished to ride unnoticed.
The penalty which low ambition pays
for keeping going is to be asked to run
larger than lifesize. Can a stream regret
that on its day it did not rise in spate?
That its violator should have been old,
not happy in his job, just getting on with it?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Border Country (part one)

I've been spending some time on my parents' farm in Drury, an area just south of Auckland which was once dominated by dairy farms but is now being subdivided into 'lifestyle blocs' - that is, into five acre lawns for yuppie commuters who fancy themselves as part-time country squires.

My parents' farm sits at the bottom of the volcanic Drury Hills, which are the site of Maketu Pa, a fortress and kainga (village) occupied by Maori from 1720 to 1863. (You can see a computer reconstruction of the pa here.) By the time European settlers were appearing in the south Auckland area the pa was associated with Waiohua, an iwi (tribe) based in Mangere with ties to the large Tainui iwi centred on the Waikato region. Early in 1863 the British army pushed the Great South Road through Drury towards the border of the independent Kingdom Tainui and had declared in the Waikato.

Tainui and their allies began a campaign of guerilla war designed to stop the road: the houses of settlers were raided and burnt, surveyors' pegs were pulled up, and detachments of the British army were ambushed. Fearing an invasion of Auckland from the Waikato, the government established the 'Forest Rangers', an irregular force which was led by the notorious Gustavus von Tempsky and charged with matching the native insurgents at their own game. The Forest Rangers were soon fighting hit and run battles with Maori in the wild Hunua Ranges which rise beyond the Drury Hills.

The Waikato was invaded in July 1863, and after the victory of the British army there Maketu Pa and the land around it was confiscated and sold to settlers, many of whom were recent arrivals from South Africa. A community of small farming families developed around the site of the pa, and soon got the name 'Peach Hill' because of the many peach and other fruit trees that were planted in the Drury Hills. Like many of the new small farming communities founded on confiscated land, Peach Hill proved unsuccessful, and today all that remains of it are a graveyard partially overgrown by bush and a few stone walls. With the advent of refrigerated shipping in the 1880s, larger-scale dairy and sheep farms would succeed where the small farmers had failed.

Today Maketu Pa is a little-known and little-visited historic reserve. A couple of crude fences attempt to protect historic earthworks - kumara pits, and terracing, and tranverse ditches - from marauding cows.

Check out this website dedicated to the pa. It has photos of one of the old Peach Hill gravestones and an 1880 painting of the scene, as well as that computer recreation...

The petition for war and recolonisation

[Well, I hope the people I criticise here are happy...]

A friend sent me a link to an online 'Ceasfire Petition' yesterday. The organisers of the petition claim that almost a quarter of a million people have already given their support to this call:

The world cannot allow the bloodshed in the Middle East to continue. Thousands of innocent civilians have been killed and wounded, almost 1 million made homeless, and a catastrophic larger conflict is possible. We call on US President Bush, UK Prime Minister Blair and the UN Security Council to support UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call for an immediate ceasefire and an international force to stabilize the situation.

Like all sane people, I want the carnage in Lebanon and the rocket attacks on northern Israel to end. That's why I won't be signing this petition. Kofi Annan's 'ceasefire' would see Israeli troops remaining in southern Lebanon until they could be relieved by a United Nations force that would be dominated by France, Lebanon's old colonial master.

Like the Israelis before them, the UN troops would be charged with disarming Hizbollah's militia, a task that is not going to achieved by anything short of armed force. Far from 'stabilizing the situation', a UN army would simply continue the war. The only difference would be that the Lebanese people would see their country occupiued by half a dozen foreign armies instead of a single army. The 'Ceasefire Petition' is in fact a proposal for recolonisation and war.

The simple truth is that there will be peace in Lebanon when the south of the country is free of foreign occupation. The war began when Israel invaded Lebanon, and the Lebanese defending their country have made it clear that they will stop fighting as soon as Israel withdraws from their country. Israel has tried to present the rocket attacks launched by Hizbollah as justification for its invasion, but the attacks began only after Israeli air raids began killing Lebanese civilians. Hizbollah leaders have repeatedly offered an immediate ceasefire and an end to rocket attacks in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal.

Instead of wasting their time appealing to Bush and Blair to transmogrify from warmongers into peacemakers, the signers of the Ceasefire Petition should be on the streets demanding that Israel end its occupation of Lebanon.

Brits on the retreat in Helmland

Afghanistan is the scene of the Middle East's forgotten war, but Robert Fox's new post on the Guardian's Comment is Free blog throws some light on the situation in the country that became the first target of George Bush's War of Terror. Fox observes that the British forces in Afghanistan's Helmland province have effectively retreated in the face of attacks from insurgents that have claimed 10 lives in the last two months:

British troops were ordered to get out of their isolated forward bases in upper Helmand province, because they were deemed to be too vulnerable and beyond rescue if their opponents continued their efforts to overrun them...

Since May the British Maysan Task Force, led by 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment, have been trying to establish five or six "security zones" upcountry along the Helmand. The idea was that they would bring law and order, allowing reconstruction to flourish, and educate the farmers to abandon the opium poppy monoculture for tomatoes, pomegranates and even artichokes. Unfortunately the paras arrived just as the poppies were being picked. Word soon got out that the Brits had come to take away the crop, destroy livelihoods, wreck communities, and insult women.

The opponents of the Brits and the occupiers of Afghanistan as usually presented as Taliban retreads, but Fox suggests such a view is mistaken:

Contrary to international reports most of the fighters are not "Taliban"...Many are local tribesmen and villagers who just don't want the British - or any other foreigners - on their patch. Contrary to Nato intelligence calculations, they have been attacking in hundreds - virtually in battalion strength - and not the dozens that were expected. The British Nato troops have brought war and not much peace to Helmand.

Fox attributes the retreat of the Brits to military overstretch - they have only three and a half thousand men in the whole of Helmland - but I think that the domestic political consequences of an unexpectedly high toll of dead and wounded may also be a factor. I think that, thanks partly to the efforts of the anti-war movement, the British population is much more sensitive to troop losses in the War of Terror. When I was in Hull last year a man from the nearby town of Goole was killed in Iraq: his face dominated newspapers for days afterwards. It is fortunate for Tony Blair that British troops have been mainly stationed in the relatively quiet southern part of Iraq, where troop losses have not matched those suffered by the US in the Sunni triangle.

Friday, August 11, 2006

High Wycombe gets less boring

I got this e mail this morning from a friend who lives in the sleepy English town of High Wycombe:


A house got raided a few streets away from our place this morning and two brothers arrested in connection with the airplane bomb plot! There are police everywhere and choppers in the skies. A guy with a gun was standing outside our place. They raided some other places nearby and there's rumours they found explosives stored in the woods. Scary. It feels like we're at war.

You guys should visit!


At least Aido can't complain about how boring High Wycombe is now.

The town's previous claim to fame was as the place where the cover photo for Motorhead's Ace of Spades album was taken. The band members had never visited America and wanted to have a look, so they dressed up as cowboy gunslingers and demanded to be flown to the Wild West for the album cover photoshoot. Their record label looked at its expenses account and drove them to a sand quarry on the outskirts of High Wycombe instead...

Thursday, August 10, 2006

What do these three phrases have in common?

1. obtain from the brook

2. someoldguyswithscythes

3. it's you

Answer: they're all complete poems by Robert Grenier, the arch-minimalist of contemporary American literature and the most under-rated member of the school of Language Poetry. Ron Silliman, who is almost certainly the most over-rated of the Language Poets, has a new tribute to Grenier up on his blog.

Reclaiming Zog

It seems I can't please anyone these days. A couple of days ago I was accused on indymedia and in the comments boxes of this blog of being pro-Zionist, because I criticised a couple of aspects of the political programme of Hizbollah. Now some denizens of the increasingly bizarre Harry's Place blog have used the comments box under this post to peg me as an anti-Semite, because of some remarks I made in a post on the degeneration of the political tendency Harry's Place represents.

Here's the sentence that was offered up as evidence for my anti-semitism:

If you remember, the pro-war 'left' is a tiny but noisy bunch of mainly British journos and bloggers who think that the 'pseudo-left' - that's the real left, for those of us who don't reside on Planet Zog - has betrayed its history and principles by not supporting George Bush's military adventure in Iraq.

ZOG is an acronym for Zionist Occupation Government used by neo-Nazis; the phrase even has its own wikipedia entry, complete with a sort of etymology:

The name first appeared in "Welcome to ZOG-World". This article was written by the American neo-Nazi Eric Thomson in 1976, and appears to have first been brought to widespread attention in a December 27, 1984 article in the New York Times about robberies committed in California and Washington by a white supremacist group, The Order. According to the newspaper, the crimes "were conducted to raise money for a war upon the United States Government, which the group calls "ZOG," or Zionist Occupation Government."

There's a hilarious parody of this sort of nonsense at the Creedish Occupied Government site, which alleges that Amish people are secretly running the world.

Fortunately for me, the phrase 'planet Zog' has a history of its own, and was even added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2001, where it is defined as "place or situation which is far removed from reality or what is currently happening". If that's not good enough, you can visit a website dedicated to a planet called Zog here and learn to count in Zoggish...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Biggest anti-war demonstration yet in Israel

News is circulating about a large demonstration in Tel Aviv against Israel's invasion of Lebanon:

During the march, the demonstrators shouted (in Hebrew): "Jews and Arabs / refuse to be enemies!" - "We shall not die nor kill / in the service of the USA!" - "Children want to live / in Beirut and Haifa!" - "Peretz, Peretz resign / peace is more important!" - "A million refugees / that's a war crime!" - "Olmert, Peretz and Ramon / Get out of Lebanon!"

The two most popular stickers were Gush Shalom's "Bring the Soldiers Home" and the Israeli-Palestinian Bereaved Families' Forum's "It will not End Until we Talk!"

Some conspicuous posters: "We shall all lose!" - "Occupation and War are a disaster!" - "Just Peace = Security!" - "39 Years are enough - End the Occupation!" - "There is no military solution!" - "Cease-fire NOW!" - "Stop the war! Stop the massacre!"

All peace organizations took part. Besides Gush Shalom, participants included the Women's Coalition for Peace, Ta'ayush, Anarchists Against Walls, Yesh Gvul, the Israeli-Palestinian Forum of Bereaved Families, feminists, many parents with their children, veteran and young peace activists as well the political parties Hadash, Balad and the United Arab List.

A sign of the ferment in the political system was provided by members of Meretz, who took part in spite their party's pro-war position. They were led by former MKs Naomi Hazan abd Ya'el Dayan.

Dayan's speech caused an incident, when she sent greetings to the soldiers fighting in Lebanon. Her words aroused heated protests, and some activists tried to storm the stage, but were held back by their friends.

Among the speakers were the secretary of the Arab Citizens' Monitoring Committee, a representative of the Russian immigrants, a conscientious objector about enter prison, a peace activist whose housed has been hit by a rocket, and others...

Aotearoa Jews for Justice is organising similar events in this part of the world.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The dead end of anti-Semitism

Over at indymedia a couple of readers have objected to my criticisms of the anti-Semitism of Hizbollah's leadership. They seem to believe that it is inappropriate to discuss the issue at a time like this, when Hizbollah is contending with the might of an invading army.

But Hizbollah's anti-Semitism is a key part of the strategy it is using to resist Israel. Instead of looking to unite the ordinary people of Lebanon and Israel, Hizbollah says that working class Jews are part of the problem, not the solution, and therefore have to defeated along with the Israeli ruling class. The problem is that it is impossible for Hizbollah's few thousand fighters, heroic as they are, to defeat the might of the Israeli army without help from inside Israel. And when Jewish workers hear Hizbollah leaders saying that the Holocaust never happened, that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a real historical text, that all the Jews in Israel have to be driven into the sea, and so on, then they are driven further into the camp of the Israeli ruling class, which naturally tries to demonise Israel's Arab neighbours to justify its wars. Hizbollah's leaders play right into the hands of the Zionists.

One of my critics argues that:

Pouring petrol on the Zionist spark about Hizbollah is a dangerous game. Also appeals to the Israeli working class are a bit rich- did the CWG appeal to the white working class of South Africa to overthrow apartheid?

The Israeli working class live on stolen land and benifit from the subsidies the US gives to them. A minority of Israelis oppose Zionism, but the vast majority do not.

I don't think you can compare the Israeli working class with the Afrikaaner working class in apartheid South Africa for two reasons.

In the first place, the Israeli working class includes the vast majority of the country's population, not a tiny minority living indirectly off the exploitation of the majority as was the case with the Afrikaaners in South Africa.

In the second place, the Israeli working class includes numerous ethnic/cultural strata, and the lower strata are oppressed in various ways because of their ethnicity/culture. Right at the bottom of society you have the Arab Israelis, but the Beta (black) Jews are not much higher up. Nor are the Yemeni Jews and many of the immigrants from Russia. All of these groups have been subject to varying degress of discrimination, and many of their members are not only workers but low-paid workers. To compare such people to the tiny labour aristocracy that was the Afrikaaner working class in apartheid South Africa seems unfair, to say the least.

(It is notable that Reuven Abarjel, a founder and leader of the Israeli Black Panther movement that thrived amongst oppressed Israeli Jews in the 1970s, has come out in favour of recent union sanctions against Israel. Abarjel complains of continuing discrimination against Israeli Jews from Africa and the Middle East.)

A glance at the latest message page on the large Marxmail e list suggests that this is a debate that is being repeated around the world. Here's a thought from Argentina, which has the largest Jewish population outside Israel and the United States.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Greens have no answer to war in Lebanon

In his most recent press release on the war in Lebanon, Green Party Foreign Affairs spokesman Keith Locke gives his 'full support' to Helen Clark's position on the war. Clark, of course, has been calling for an immediate ceasefire and for the creation of an international 'peacekeeping' force to control southern Lebanon.

Locke has been a fixture at demonstrations against the invasion of Lebanon, but when he has spoken at these events he has frequently sounded out of tune with many of his fellow protesters. In Auckland a couple of weeks ago he was heckled when he insisted on condemning Israel and the Lebanese resisting Israel's invasion of Lebanon equally. His call for a 'United Nations solution' to the conflict also met with some jeers from members of the audience who regarded the UN as hopelessly dominated by the US and other imperialist powers and unable to act in the interests of the Lebanese people.

Locke's latest statement is an example of everything that is wrong with the Green approach to international affairs. Locke calls for an immediate ceasefire by both Israel and the Lebanese resisting Israeli invasion. But such a call ignores the fact that the Lebanese are fighting a just and necessary war of self-defence against an Israeli invasion, which has cost the lives of close to a thousand civilians.

Contrary to what Fox News and the White House have been telling us, Hizbollah did not 'provoke' Israel when they took two Israeli soldiers prisoner last month. Hizbollah were merely responding under popular pressure to the continuing occupation of Lebanese territory by Israel in the Shebaa Farms area, to the refusal of Israel to release Lebanese abducted in cross-border raids, to a series of acts of aggression on the border and to the invasion of Gaza by the Israeli army.

Israel had been preparing for a new invasion of Lebanon for a long time, and seized upon the two prisoners Hizbollah had taken as an excuse. Since the Israeli invasion began, Lebanese have united behind the Hizbollah-directed defence of the south of their country. The Christian, Druze, and Sunni Muslim sections of the population, which have traditionally been hostile to Hizbollah, have given their backing to the resistance. A recent opinion poll had 85% of Lebanese showing sympathy for Hizbollah. Even the Patriarch of the Maronite Christian church has given his blessings to Hizbollah's fighters.

Since he says he is giving his 'full backing' to the Clark government's position on the war in Lebanon, Locke has presumably decided to accept the plan hammered out by key Western powers like the UK, France, and the US for an international 'peacekeeping' force to occupy southern Lebanon under the cover of a UN resolution. It is clear that such a force will be designed not to relieve the Israeli military machine, which is being taxed by Lebanese resistance. These 'peacekeepers' will be charged with doing the job Israel cannot do for itself.

The resolution Blair and Bush are presenting to the UN does not require Israel to withdraw from southern Lebanon as a condition for a ceasefire. The UN has already passed resolution 1559, which calls on Hizbollah to lay down its arms. Over the past three weeks Israel has tried and failed to disarm Hizbollah; now, in desperation, it is showing increased interest in getting a UN-backed international army to do the job for it.

By giving their 'full backing' to the Clark government's approach to the war in Lebanon, the Greens are supporting the institutionalisation of Israel's occupation of the south of Lebanon and the disarming of Hizbollah. They are also defying the opinions of the vast majority of the Lebanese people and the Lebanese government. What right does Keith Locke have to tell the Lebanese people that they should stop defending their homes and families, when their country is suffering such a violent attack? Locke should be arguing that the Lebanese have a right to fight back for as long as Israel occupies their country.

Of course, support for the right of the Lebanese to defend their country does not have to mean uncritical support for the political ends of Hizbollah. We can admire the courage of the rank and file Hizbollah fighters without admiring the anti-union, anti-Semitic and misogynistic practices of their theocratic leadership. The left should avoid following the example of the British social democratic politician George Galloway, who has praised the leader of Hizbollah as a great man at anti-war rallies in London.

Galloway's local supporters in the Socialist Worker group recently posted an article on indymedia which correctly said that Hizbollah was a mass organisation fighting a just war of self-defence, but which skipped over the group's execution of trade unionists, feminists, and gays, and its leaders' claims that the Holocaust never happened and that all the Jews in Israel should be driven into the sea.

Hizbollah's anti-Semitism is not only deeply obnoxious -it is counterproductive, because Israel’s government can only be defeated with the assistance of the Israeli working class. Hizbollah only forced Israel out of most of southern Lebanon in 2000 because the Israeli workers had grown tired of paying for the occupation with cuts in social services and dead soldiers. Today Hizbollah's few thousand fighters can never defeat Israel's new occupation by solely military means. Victory is most likely to come for the Lebanese if workers in Israel and in key Western countries turn against this war and act to put pressure on the Israeli government and military machine. Already a few Israeli workers' organisations like the Workers Advice Centres have come out against the war, and the first 'refusenik' has been jailed for refusing service in Lebanon. Anti-war rallies in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have drawn thousands.

Internationally, a number of trade unions are placing bans on companies whose services or products are linked to the Israeli war machine. In Aotearoa, Auckland students have demanded that their university break ties with Israeli universities linked to the war on Lebanon, and the National Distribution Union is encouraging its members to come to anti-war protests. This sort of progressive grassroots internationalism is the true alternative to Keith Locke's pathetic faith in Helen Clark and the United Nations.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Woodstock comes to Mexico

Readers depressed by the news from the Middle East might like to read this brief report - it was forwarded to me by a stranger, and I have no idea who Mitchel Cohen is - from Mexico City, which is the epicentre of an enormous uprising against the electoral fraud that cost centre-left candidate Lopez Obrador the Mexican presidency last month. Obrador ran for office on a moderate platform, but his supporters are creating a momentum of their own as they challenge Mexico's venal elite on the streets of the country's cities and towns.

Hi folks,

You wouldn´t believe how great it is here, for now, in Mexico City. Thousands of campesinos are occupying the zocalo and are branching out to various targets. Today
several hundred are blockading the central Mexican Bank, and it is closed down. I´ve been taking a gazillion pictures for Z mag, Counterpunch and elsewhere, and have surprisingly met a couple of NY friends who have snuck down here too. We were
interviewed in the rightwing newspaper Excelsior, which will be out tomorrow with our pictures and words.

The traffic is going crazy. I´ve seen many instances of road rage, as campesinos´ horse-drawn carts are starting to clog the streets, the police have been extremely friendly (unlike NYC) and the whole center of the city is in chaos .... Artists are bursting out everywhere, there´s a signup sheet to perform on the main stage with full band back-up. Woodstock comes to Mexico Of course literally millions of dollars are pumped into this movement by Obrador ... where is it coming from? The literally hundreds of tents that completely cover several miles of avenues. Music all night long, around 8,000 people last night building platforms to sleep on, children´s areas, etc. Democracy in action.

I´d love to send photos but they take too long to send (theyre too big). Still, if you individually want a couple let me know and I´ll do my best. Complete media blackout on TV here, except for la Jornada.

Mitchel Cohen

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Bob strikes again

On September the 11th, 2001 I woke early in the morning, with a keen sense of anticipation.

If you find that sentence sinister, then you're not a true Bob Dylan fan. September the 11th, 2001 will be remembered for other reasons, but for months it had been eagerly awaited by devotees of his Bobness, because it was the release date for Love and Theft, the man's first new studio album in four years. For thousands of people who rushed out and bought the new disc, the ghastly images of September the 11th gained an instant soundtrack. And the lyrics of 'High Water (for Charlie Patton)', one of the strongest songs on the album, sounded like awful premonitions to those of us watching TV with our stereos turned up:

High water risin', six inches 'bove my head
Coffins droppin' in the street
Like balloons made out of lead

The words to 'Honest with Me', the second to last track on Love and Theft, would gain their own eerie significance after George Bush used September the 11th to launch a new American empire in the Middle East:

Some things are too terrible to be true...
I'm here to create the new imperial empire
I'm gonna do whatever circumstances require

Times were a changing, and not for the better, though the young Bob would no doubt have been impressed by the huge anti-war movement that rose out of the ashes of September the 11th to oppose Bush, as well by as the heroic resistance to US imperialism in Iraq, Venezuela, and numerous other parts of the Third World.

Now Bob has a new suite of songs in the can, and they're due for release less than two weeks before the fifth anniversary of Osama bin Laden's onslaught. Dylan has given his forty-fourth studio album the title Modern Times, which sounds rather ominous to me. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed on August the 29th...

Getting to Sleep

This poem comes from Kendrick Smithyman's cunningly-titled 1978 collection Dwarf with a Billiard Cue. In 1995 a very sprightly Allen Curnow read it at a memorial service for Smithyman; I'm posting it here as a sort of charm for a friend who has been suffering from insomnia. I actually think I saw a Siamese cat on a leash on Orewa Beach once...


Sleep, make your compacts,
versions of how to cope
with your antiquity, its conflicts
with whatever your situation is.
There is an art in dreaming well;
therapy, in practising at arts.

That much I heard somewhere, thought it
over, dozy in a hot pool at Waiwera.
Steaming clouds, like dreams among hibiscus.
Owls called beyond, lights’ circles
blurring dropped rumoured mortality
phrase by phrase, like dropping the one
stone in the one pool, resonant.

Not dreams’ fantastics or grotesques
you find hard for treaty.
The other night I dreamt solid,
three dimensional, with colour, tonality,
texture: a chapel, seen through fieldglasses.
Its plan octagonal, starshaped;
its walls cream, enormous timber roofing
dark-brown as almost black,
folded and pleated. At the star-points
vertical planks met the roof.
Everything wooden was carved
to tell: a Maori Adam, a Maori Eve
in a Maori garden, falling. A Michael
who was Maori wrestled a taniwha.
A bearded Maori Father watched,
approving the outcome.

And so on, a Creation wholly reasonable.
Whereas, on the Orewa beach front
in that same evening a middleaged couple
followed a Siamese cat on a lead –
where the cat went, they went, watched
by a young camel with a reddish-brown coat
grazing near the conveniences.
The camel was startled from time to time
by cough of seal, outcry
of sea elephant, at Marineland.

Then I was not easy in myself
ailing of some antique state
or of offence, unnamed, to reason.

Lebanon and the death of the pro-war 'left'

One of the unlamented victims of the ongoing carnage in Lebanon is the pro-war 'left', that peculiar gaggle of British bloggers and journos who have promoted George Bush's crusade in the Middle East as a 'socialist' fight for 'modernity' and 'secularism' against the dark forces of 'Islamofascism' and the 'pseudo-left' (that's the real-life offline left, in most people's lexicons).

I noted a few months back that the pro-war 'left' was being pulled apart by the disastrous consequences of Bush's military adventure in Iraq:

The pro-war left seems to be disintegrating as a coherent political tendency, as its former adherents choose between an uncomplicated neo-conservatism and a return to the ‘old’ anti-war left.

The choice between an uncomplicated neo-conservatism and some sort of shamefaced return to the left has been posed especially starkly by the crisis in Lebanon. In America, the rump of the neo-con movement has grasped at this new war like a drowning man grasping at a straw. Like the Iraq adventure before it, Israel's invasion of Lebanon is being hailed as a 'circuit-breaker' that will rout anti-American forces and see the birth of a 'new Middle East'.

It is rather difficult, though, to put any sort of humanitarian, 'left' gloss on the carnage in Lebanon. The US's claim to be liberating the Iraqi people always rang hollow to most of us, but not even the most shameless warmonger would try to argue that Israel's invasion is an attempt to liberate the Lebanese.

The brutally punitive nature of imperialism's new war does not trouble neo-cons ensconced snugly in the thinktanks of Washington. Irving Kristol and co have never disguised their lack of sympathy for the notion of humanitarian war. Equating progress and prosperity with American hyperpower, they see the naked display of military muscle by the US and its allies as wholly desirable.

Matters are somewhat more complicated for scions of the old pro-war 'left' like Norm Geras and Christopher Hitchens. Both Hitchens and Geras argued that the left should seek a temporary rapproachment with the neo-con right, in order to take advantage of a supposed sea change in US foreign policy. For these folk, the war in Iraq was a war for democracy, human rights, and the ending of the humanitarian disasters Saddam Hussein's rule had created. It must be clear even to Geras and Hitchens that the war in Lebanon is undermining a bourgeois democratic government and creating a humanitarian disaster of colossal proportions.

Hitchens' opposition to the new war, and Geras' typically mealy-mouthed criticisms the worst atrocities, have to be understood as attempts by the better-known members of the rump of the old pro-war 'left' to distance themselves from the latest disastrous consequences of US policies in the Middle East. Jay Sparrow suggested recently that the last vestiges of Hitchens' reputation are in danger of going up in the fire Bush and Blair have lit:

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.

If the invasion of Lebanon is forcing Hitchens to distance himself from the neo-cons, and return shamefacedly to an anti-war stance, then it is prompting other members of the old anti-war 'left' to nail their colours to the neo-con mast by adopting an almost hysterically pro-Israel position. The refusal of Harry's Place and The Popinjays, the two largest pro-war 'left' blogsites, to so much as condemn the massacre at Qana, and the way that their comment boxes have become choked with the foulest anti-Arab propaganda, suggest that a Rubicon has been crossed.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


The small group of protesters occupying Happy Valley, a remote part of the northwest coast of the South Island slated for coal mining, has declared independence:

The occupation of Happy Valley, on the West Coast, turns six months today. The Save Happy Valley Coalition, which has been blocking Solid Energy's attempts to turn the Valley into an open-cast coal mine, has commemorated the anniversary by declaring the entire Waimangaroa Valley [1] an 'Autonomous zone.'

"Today, the delicate ecosystems of Happy Valley cease to exist merely as a source of revenue for Solid Energy, and now exist only for themselves. The Save Happy Valley Coalition [2] reaffirms its commitment to employ non-violent direct action to defend Happy Valley from both the digger and dynamite of state owned enterprise Solid Energy. By declaring the Valley as an autonomous zone [3], the Coalition has taken practical steps to ensure its protection," said Coalition spokesperson Frances Mountier.

I'm not sure how successful the protesters will be in controlling their new state. New Zealand's armed forces may have been run down somewhat over the past couple of decades, but I still think they'd be more of a match for the boys and girls bedding down in teepees. More's the pity. To be fair, the protesters seem to be aiming to create publicity, rather than take on the state.

This isn't the first time a small group of people has tried to secede from the rest of New Zealand. In 1879 the good folk of Hawera, a small town in the south Taranaki, declared independence in protest at the supposed reluctance of the government in Wellington to press ahead with the crushing of the de facto Maori state of Parihaka, which had been defying attempts by settlers to survey its farmland. Believing that the central government was unwilling to send troops to smash Parihaka and arrest its spiritual leader Te Whiti, the settlers raised their own militia. The Republic of Hawera fizzled out after a couple of weeks, when troops arrived to launch an assault on Parihaka. The 1966 Encyclopedia of New Zealand has an interesting article on the Republic here.

Rumblings in Panmure

The smouldering volcano of poetic genius that is Richard Taylor erupted again last week - you can see the detritus on Eyelight, which is Richard's ongoing blog-poem. Richard is the only person I know - admittedly, I live a sheltered life - who is using the blog post as the basic unit for a long piece of creative writing, and he is doing a very good job of showing the possibilities inherent in this strange new form.