Sunday, April 29, 2007

Guess where #2

And click on the photos to enlarge 'em. Congratulations to Eugenie for winning the first round (see the comments box). As for the folks who guessed 'London' and 'Athens'...

At The Point

Today I wrote my first poem in 13 years (with editorial assistance from Maps).

the cicada stepped out of its skin
into the breeze
she picks the shell
off the pine sap
the dumpy dripping staligmite
she lets the breeze lift it
drop it
onto broken needles
where a condom leaks
like a punctured jellyfish

Friday, April 27, 2007

Anti-Anzac and anti-Maori?

The recent Anzac Day protests by anti-war activists have prompted furious debates on indymedia and other parts of the internet. Here's one piece of criticism that appeared on indymedia, together with a reply from me.

I'm 15 and will eventually join the army as an officer. You bastards this is not about glorifying war. It is about the fallen men of New Zealand and Australia. Yes there is a time for protest but why now, why on Aotearoa's day of remembrance. Your forefathers would ashamed of you. My Dad was in Timor, Afghanistan and the Solomons not for war, but to keep the peace, which of course is why you protested isn't it...for peace! This song is my favourite:

Maori Battalion march to victory
Maori Battalion staunch and true
Maori Battalion march to glory
Take the honour of the people with you
We will march, march, march to the enemy
And we'll fight right to the end.
For God! For King! And for Country!
AU - E! Ake, ake, kia kaha e!

These protesting pigs need to be thrown in jail. I am going to join the forces not because I want to kill...which many of you pigs reckon...But because of my family tradition. I'm Maori and would die for my whanau and my country. Not like you cowards who hide behind signs smoking dak. What does protesting prove? Nothing...

We were bound by our own free will to defend Britain and go to war for her. Yes World War One was pointless and many lives were lost that should not have been. But the fact is it happened and our soldiers belived that they were doing the right thing by going to fight for King and country. The protesters are entitled to their opinion and could have chosen any other day to voice it to any other authority and they would have been appluaded by many including myself. Now I am nothing but angry with them and I feel they have insulted me, my ancestors an all that fought in, died in and returned from the wars and conflicts that this country has served in.

Here's my reply:

You need to question a few of those assumptions.

Being Maori doesn't mean having to take part in the wars of the British and American Empires. Did you know that the very first Anzacs fought not at Gallipoli but in the Waikato War of 1863-64, when land-hungry Europeans attacked the independent Waikato Kingdom? Some of them are buried in the yard outside St John's Church in the village of Drury, where I grew up.

When the first World War broke out, Tainui and several other iwi refused to take part. 'Why should we fight for an Empire that stole our land and resources?' they asked. Princess Te Puea, the great leader of the Tainui people, made an alliance with Pakeha trade unionists and socialists and led a campaign of resistance when attempts were made to conscript young Maori men. In his biography of Te Puea, Michael King describes thousands of men who refused to serve gathering at Mangatawhiri Marae near Mercer, where they were arrested. They were imprisoned in places like Mt Eden Prison and Narrowneck Naval Base; dozens were killed by the inhumane conditions there.

The year after the bungled invasion of Turkey that you want to celebrate, armed Pakeha cops attacked the town that Tuhoe had established underneath their sacred mountain Maungapohatu in the Urewera Ranges. Because the leader of the Tuhoe, the prophet Rua Kenana, had advised Maori to refuse to fight in the war, the town at Maungapohatu was sacked. Kenana was arrested and imprisoned, and one of his sons was shot dead.

It's true that some Maori took part in the First World War and more took part in the Second. The Maori Battalion was set up by leaders like Apirana Ngata, who believed that Maori should turn their back on their history of resistance to colonialism, and instead try to win the 'respect' of the Pakeha establishment by fighting in wars on the other side of the world.

There's no doubt that Maori did fight and die with courage in both World Wars. They died in such great numbers that many whanau and hapu were deprived of a generation of males. But was the sacrifice worth it? Ngata’s hopes that the blood Maori spilt on the mud of the western front and the deserts of North Africa would persuade Pakeha governments to honour the Treaty of Waitangi and reverse the land and resource theft begun in the nineteenth century were disappointed. After the war, Maori remained second-class citizens in their own country. The path of compromise with the government in Wellington and its imperialist allies did not bring justice.

It was only in the 1970s, when a new generation of Maori rejected Ngata's moderation and launched land occupations and other protests, that progress began to come. By taking direct action, and forging alliances with trade unions and left-wing groups, Maori have won back some stolen land at places like Raglan and Bastion Point, as well as state recognition of and funding for their language and other parts of their culture.

At every step of the way, though, the state forces which you want to celebrate have been used against Maori trying to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. There’s a movie from 1980 called Bastion Point: Day 507 which you should watch. It documents the day in 1978 when a convoy of massive New Zealand army trucks rolled through Auckland to Bastion Point, where Ngati Whatua and their supporters had been occupying land stolen from the tribe. Soldiers from the army you want to celebrate were used to demolish the village Ngati Whatua had built at Bastion Point, as hundreds of Maori and their supporters were arrested (Ngati Whatua would eventually win their land back a decade later).

The events of that day in 1978 show that the army is a tool of the New Zealand state, a state that was founded on the dispossession of Maori. And the army acts in the same way abroad as it does at home. In Korea, Malaya, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and now East Timor Maori soldiers have acted as foot soldiers for the same sort of aggressive imperialism that stole their own land and resources in the nineteenth century. Half of the Kiwi troops who fought in America’s war on Vietnam were Maori; many of them have never recovered from the experience.

Last February, Anzac troops staged an attack on a refugee camp near the East Timorese capital Dili which had many parallels to the attack on Bastion Point. Supported by two tanks, the Anzacs smashed their way through barricades into the camp, whose homeless residents had been refusing government demands that they move away. Three Timorese the same age as you were shot in cold blood by these heroic Anzacs; two of them died of their wounds.

If you become an Anzac, you’ll end up on missions like the one to Comoro refugee camp, doing the dirty work for American and Australian imperialism. With US imperialism in crisis and lashing out desperately around the world, there will be no shortage of new wars and colonial occupations for you to take part in. You might find yourself on the streets of Kabul, or in the mountains of Iran, or in the jungles of South America. You might even find yourself aiming a gun at protesters in Aotearoa. Wherever you go, though, you’ll be despised, as a hired thug for imperialism. Go and talk to one of the soldiers who fought against the tangata whenua of Vietnam, and are still filled with self-hatred. There are easier things to do with your life, comrade.

Which hill is this taken from?

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The musical novelist

Before it was famous for the low-fi guitar pop pioneered by the Flying Nun label, Dunedin was known for giving shelter to some of New Zealand's most interesting writers. A bronze Robbie Burns gazes benignly over the city centre, and nearby Otago University blazed a trail by setting up a Burns fellowship to support local and visiting writers way back in 1958. The Burns put a smile on local publicans' faces by bringing Maurice Duggan south in 1960, and later that decade it stimulated James K Baxter to write some of his most popular work. Bill Direen is the latest writer to seek refuge in the deep south: he arrived late last year, after living for the best part of a decade in Paris.

Direen is hardly a stranger to Dunedin: in the 1980s he released a string of gloriously ragged recordings on Flying Nun, and frequently travelled south to perform in the city. In the latest issue of Critic Te Arohi, Otago University's student magazine, Megan Anderson has written a very hospitable review of Song of the Brakeman, the novel Bill published with Titus Books last year. Critic is a mostly offline mag so, with the permission of Anderson and Titus, I've reproduced the review here.

Song of the Brakeman, by Bill Direen. Reviewed by Megan Anderson in Critic Te Arohi, pp 46-7, Issue 7, 2007.

Bill Direen is achieving something in his literature that defies his claim that he writes simply to “stay relatively sane”. His latest novel Song of the Brakeman, seems rather to be an exercise in prose and poetry that is refreshingly unique among a fairly predictable mainstream literary scene.

Song of the Brakeman is set in a world like ours, but it is impossible to treat it as such. The landscape Direen portrays is one in which the continents have fragmented, the environment is irrevocably tainted, the ice caps have melted, and the entire hydrological cycle is suspended. Direen calls it “ a world of the imagination, rather than of the future.” This is reassuring, as the world Direen paints is the sort of apocalyptic future one could easily envisage for our own world, if global warming is anything to go by. Situated in the midst of this ecological nightmare is Brakeman, a technician (surprisingly enough) closely involved in the mafia-like global state that is in possession of the earth’s remaining wealth and resources. Outside this chaotic mess of intrigue and violence is the Tribe — a species of humanity separated from the rest of society for both their strangeness and their inability to survive if taken captive. While the global state is set for the Tribe’s destruction, there is an inexorable twist — within the Tribe’s genetic structure is the key to the rest of humanity’s survival. With the intention of holding and breeding the Tribe like cattle, the global state begins a plot to secure the salvation of mankind. This plan is doomed as they see the only means of accomplishing this to be violence and slavery. Aiming to subvert this plot, Brakeman, with the help of his tribal lover Enola, secretly feeds information to the Tribe — only to be suspected and imprisoned in a sort of interrogation camp from hell. The novel subsequently plunges into their escape and their eventual refuge within the Tribe.

During an interview with the Dunedin-based Bill Direen, Critic got the impression that storyline plays a relatively small role in Direen’s writing. As a product of Titus Books ‘(a writing platform which embraces works of literature that “menace existing categories”), Song of the Brakeman is decidedly set apart from the standard novel. What’s particularly striking about the novel is its musicality. Direen uses narrative as an expressive tool, constantly altering the narrative’s pace, rhythm and tone to represent what it’s describing. What begins as a choppy, violent urban setting reflected through a film noir / Sin City monologue evolves into a retreat into nature — or what is left of it in a deteriorating world — a lyrical prose flooded with imagery. This performative aspect of Direen’s work is something he is obviously passionate about (he is also an active musician), and this is evident in his search for a language which “includes the verbal elements and the musical elements which [are] a part of me, which [have] always been a part of me.” Direen emphasises the sound and musicality of language, rather than focusing on just the semantic qualities of words: “Because I was a musician, and still am” he says, “music and rhythm, and a lot of the musical aspects of language play a big part in the way that I see literature.”

For Direen these musical aspects include “the rhythm of the sentences and also the personality of the voice … so with each novel there’s a definite voice there that I hear in the back of my mind which preserves the style, and that’s why the styles are quite different in [my] different novels.”

Direen is adamant that his search for an expressive, musical language is not him “purposely trying to be difficult in this language thing” though he admits, “People have accused me of it.” It is understandable that Direen has been regarded with scepticism concerning his unconventional style of language. Undoubtedly, Song of the Brakemen is not a novel to be greedily devoured on a rainy day — although it is certainly absorbing enough. Direen writes in a way that forces you to reflect on what you are reading, with imagery at once muted and elaborate, tenses that shuffle with the rising conflict and film noir narrative that splinters into frames of lucidity. In addition, poetry is interspersed throughout the novel to shake any impressions readers may have had of this being a straightforward mainstream novel. What Direen achieves instead is a seemingly self-reflexive examination of the text itself, the language, and the power of prose. Rather than falling strictly into any modernist/post)modernist genre, the distinct style of Song of the Brakeman remains accessible throughout. At times Direen approaches his reader directly with such lines as, “His mood scared you sacred,” “We achieve in death not life,” and “we were the living carcasses in an experimental soup.” Direen’s sharp observations on the lusts and lows of human character, and humanity’s often irrational thirst for survival continually draws the reader into this strange world. In this respect, reading Song of the Brakeman is almost like an out-of-body experience, with a continual sense of being suspended in time and space. This sensation is enhanced by the scattered fragments of poetry that are oddly incongruous with Direen’s depiction of a world utterly destroyed and disfigured by its inhabitants. The actual song of the Brakeman, sung enthusiastically by Brakeman in the midst of the exceedingly violent interrogation scenes of Part II, is, as Direen says “intended as light relief, really, because of all this heavy stuff.” Direen admits that “It’s a satirical piece, I guess. It’s sort of anti-capitalist.” This makes sense when considering how Direen’s interrogation scenes were influenced by the Guantanamo Bay imprisonments. While Direen refers to America extensively in the novel, he stressed that ‘it’s not anti-American, but obviously I use America as a model for the world state.”

Song of the Brakeman is certainly a novel that transcends the bounds of normative literature. While Direen is continually attempting to achieve a new form of expression through his writing, he seems content in the fact that what he is expressing is essentially himself: “I don’t want to revolutionise NZ literature”, he says. “I think there’s a whole lot of really great developments in NZ literature ([such as] the number of women writing, the number of ethnic groups represented, [and] cultural representation… Now we’re getting down to very interesting representations as far as New Zealand literature. It’s just that that’s not what I do.

“I just want to keep on realising the narrative and completing the projects that I’m working on at the moment, and perhaps starting a new one. The main thing for me is just that I’m able to continue writing, which means that my mind is still operating — and I’d be happy if that continues to operate. I don’t really have any illusions about my work being accepted by the mainstream.”

Certainly, it is interesting to ponder the effect Song of the Brakeman would have upon a mainstream audience At the end of the interview Direen asked Critic of his book, “Did you think it was bizarre?”

Song of the Brakeman bizarre? Perhaps. An absorbing novel regardless? Certainly.

A test

The protests at yesterday's Anzac Day commemorations are being debated vehemently by parts of the Kiwi left. This is a comment I just made on indymedia:

Here's a simple test:

Which upsets you more?

a) The fatal shooting of two civilian protesters by Anzac forces in East Timor's Comoro refugee camp on February the 23rd


b) The destruction of a New Zealand flag yesterday in Wellington

If you're a leftist who turned up in the comments boxes at indymedia frothing at the mouth over b), but didn't see fit to talk about a), then you probably need to reexamine your priorities.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A note of protest

In a string of articles and blog posts I've complained about the indifference of the New Zealand left to the Anzac occupation of East Timor. My complaints are now well and truly out of date, thanks to the small but high-profile protests staged by anti-imperialist activists at Anzac Day dawn ceremonies in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch.

Many Kiwis will be shocked and angered to turn on their televisions today and see images of young men and women adding a dissonant note to a hallowed national event; it will be necessary to explain the reasons for the protests carefully. The Troops Out Now website set up recently by Wellington activists makes a good contribution to this job.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Tapes and bananas

When the firebrands of the great modernist art movements spat out their revolutionary manifestos a century or so ago, it's unlikely they realised they were laying the foundations for a venerable and rather stuffy tradition. Packed with denunciations of outmoded standards of bourgeois art and society, and pitched in a language that is both extravagant and elliptical, the manifestos of movements like Futurism, Surrealism, and Acmeism have become a touchstone for successive generations of grumpy young bohemians. Every new grouping of artists or writers, every new underground journal or non-dealer gallery seems to need its own manifesto, if it is to be taken at all seriously.

It's not surprising, then, that Last Tapes, the glossy freebie magazine launched last month by a gang of undergraduate Auckland students, begins with a manifesto:

1. The essential elements of our poetry will be old rags, new light and 8000 bananas. The aspirations of the new-born babe, Jesus of the winehouse, refuse the silly affairs of Providence. Sing! Yelp! and Eat Public Property!

And so on. It's rather surprising to go from these strident words to the first article in Last Tapes #1. In the sternly reasonable tones of a Granny Herald editorial, the annonymous author of 'Ban-daging the UN's wounds' inveighs against 'swollen bureaucracy' and worries that the world body may become 'irrelevant'. Those menacing superpowers North Korea and Sudan are held up as the key challenges facing new Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. This is not the sort of stuff that one expects from a generation that is supposed to be reviving the lost art of the anti-war protest.

Perhaps, though, 'Ban-daging the UN's wounds' is some sort of elaborate joke, like Vladimir Nabokov's stated support for the Vietnam War, and the Last Tapes crew is merely parodying the drearily earnest language in which international politics is wrapped by both bourgeois commenators and their left-wing opponents? Have I fallen for an elaborate avant-garde gag?

The plea to Mr Ban is followed by a leisurely and interesting dialogue between Kiwi painter Richard McWhannell and his son Francis (is he Francis or Frank on the birth certificate?). Sitting in front of one of the large but low-key portraits he seems to specialise in, McWhannel snr reminisces about the foibles of some of this country's canonised artists. Here's Toss Woollaston at work:

He took me to his studio, which was a Skyline garage type of thing, a tin-planked garage, with a potbelly stove in it. A garage in the front and a room out the back. As we went in from the house to the studio he said 'Richard, I'd like you to know that I am a practicing homosexual, if that interests you'. And as an eighteen year old, or as an any-year-old, perhaps, I said 'That's fine, Toss, but, no, it doesn't interest me. Thanks for telling me.' I was a very shy young man.

The centrepiece of the first issue of Last Tapes is a long article by chief editor Mark Taylor about the world of underground publishing. Taylor ranges from Scotland, where Kiwi exile and Chopin enthusiast Ken Ross has launched an online enterprise called Crywolf Books, to New Zealand, where Titus Books is making ripples in the small pond of local highbrow publishing. Taylor gives Titus kingpin Brett Cross plenty of time to make his case:

'There are quite a few good Auckland authors', Cross explains, 'who are just having trouble finding somewhere to get published. Most publishers are very concerend with the marketability of their work'...
Titus has no delusions about its relationship to the literary mainstream and does not fetishise its underground, subcultural position - a refreshing stance in a culture in which subversion and rebellion are increasingly a selling point, just another marketing strategy. The Titus oeuvre is 'accidentally' underground: 'it shouldn't be marginal...there should be more, there shouldn't be this differentiation'.

Near the end of his article, Taylor talks about overcoming 'Divisons between...different forms of media' and fostering a 'community-minded approach to tackling the challenges of underground cultural production'. These words perhaps give us a clue about the design behind Last Tapes. The eclecticism of the journal's first issue - an issue which manages to include poetry, art photography, and an article about the founding of Q Theatre, as well as the stuff on Titus, the failings of the UN, and Toss' garage - expresses a desire to connect the numerous art and youth subcultures that often exist in splendid isolation from one another in New Zealand. If it receives the support it deserves, Last Tapes could become an important meeting place between painters and poets, photographers and actors, underground publishers and student politicos.
If you want to send a submission, an order, or a banana to Mark and the crew, you can e mail them at:

Monday, April 23, 2007

Strung out

Here's an interesting letter from the latest Weekly Worker. Over the last year or so I've tried to pursue intermittently the connections between Marxism and chaos theory, but string theory is way over my head. Anyone want to have a go?

String ’em up

Classic Marxism took a keen interest in physical science and its relationship to materialist philosophy, so following the developments in modern physics should be of interest to Marxists. The problem is that, since the early 20th century, what is meant by ‘matter’ has become a far more complicated question than when Engels and Lenin wrote on it. If you’re seriously interested in the debates in modern physics, I wouldn’t rely on Michio Kaku, who is a populariser, not a leading string theorist by any means.

Instead, start off with The emperor’s new mind by Roger Penrose to get a grounding in relativity and quantum theory and then read The elegant universe by Brian Greene, the best popular introduction to string theory. Also, remember that this is a hotly debated field, with recent books by Peter Woit (Not even wrong) and Lee Smolin (The trouble with physics) opposing string theory for lack of testable propositions and stalled progress.

‘M-theory’, originally developed by Ed Witten, is not a particularly new theory, as stated by Alan Conchar (Letters, April 12). It’s been around since the 1990s and it’s unlikely to be “proven” soon, either by satellite evidence in 2012 or any other foreseeable experiment. At best, it’s possible that the proposed LISA satellite or the LIGO experiment may detect gravitational waves, which might offer clues to the existence of gravitons, a requirement of all string theories.

The Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator at CERN in Geneva may soon provide evidence of effects beyond the standard model of quantum chromodynamics (based on quarks). In particular, it may provide evidence of supersymmetric particles, a requirement of string theory, but not a direct proof. However, the scale and energy levels at which strings are supposed to operate is many orders of magnitude beyond the LHC and, indeed, close to the area where direct physical measurements become impossible due to the ‘planckian’ nature of matter.

The real goal is to develop a quantum theory of gravity, which would reconcile general relativity and quantum theory, descriptions of nature which are proven and correct within their own limits, but have mutually contradictory implications at the highest energy levels. A good starting point is the blog run by Sean Carroll and others, which has links to other useful science and physics blogs and resources.

I would also recommend Christoph Schiller’s very stimulating online physics text. This argues for a complete conceptual revolution in looking at the universe, although he won’t provide you with all the answers!

Alex Nichols

The real deal

After you launch a book, you and your publishers face the troublesome business of trying to get it reviewed. Titus Books has at various times asked me to write an (auto)biographal note, to send out with review copies of my book. Here is one of the versions they rejected, or at least politely ignored:

I grew up on a dairy farm in Drury, a suburb of the southern motorway at the edge of Auckland's Hunua Ranges. Nothing much happened until I was eleven, when I founded a gang called BMX Bandits Explorers, which I later renamed BMX Bandits Ninjas in acknowledgement of my declining interest in Jules Verne and my growing interest in martial arts movies. My parents' decision to buy a Beta rather than a VHS video player imposed strict formal limits on my cultural education, and in my final years at Papakura's Rosehill Secondary School I was reduced to founding a series of still-born Doors and Hendrix covers bands with names like Dead Men Rising and Cosmic Caravan.

Things looked up a little when I encountered the young Hamish Dewe during the first of the five years it took me to finish a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Auckland. Hamish and I founded a little literary journal called Salt, which began in 1994 with an editorial invoking 'metre and rhyme and the sacred cloak of Samuel Johnson', and ended in 1998 in a haze of post-structuralist in-jokes. In between, Salt published a loose group of writers that included Jack Ross, Simon Field, Michael Arnold, Richard Taylor, Richard von Sturmer and, on one occasion, the redoubtable CK Stead.

Since the end of the nineties I've taken part in a series of political projects. In 1999 I helped plan the occupation of the administative headquarters of the University of Auckland - luckily, though, I was in a pub down the road watching the cricket (New Zealand versus India, we lost) when the cops and dogs came in to break the protest up. In 2001 I was a founder of the Anti Imperialist Coalition, a United Front which raised money for Afghan opponents of the US army, campaigned against the invasion of Iraq using the slogan 'Victory to the workers' resistance', and attracted the sustained attention of Auckland's police force and the US embassy.

In 2002 I began a PhD on EP Thompson, the English historian, political activist, lapsed Marxist and failed poet who died ten years ago picking blueberries in his Worcester garden. Thanks to Thompson I had the pleasure of visiting Hull in 2005, in a successful search for letters and missing manuscripts. Work on the thesis was for a while balanced with the editorship of brief, the disreputable literary journal which Jack Ross foisted upon me.

My favourite movies are John O'Shea's Runaway and John Sayles' Lone Star, my favourite book is Judith Binney's Redemption Songs, my favourite album is Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs, my favourite Beatle is Bill Direen, and my favourite colour is orange. What more is there to say?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Guess where

If you get the town right, I'll buy you a six pack of southern lager.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Seeking Pynchon

It's a quarter to four - a quarter to four in the morning - and I'm sitting in a deserted warehouse filled with misfiring TVs trying to stay awake by downing black coffee and reading online exegeses of the novels of Thomas Pynchon. Go figure. This is quite interesting, though - as a hunter of the most pitiful scraps of EP Thompson's correspondence I can understand the immoderate excitement that a letter of two paragraphs can create...

Update: it's 5.26 and I'm still conscious! Here's another, sturdier piece of literary detective work, done by a neuroscientist rather than an archive-comber...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

CLR James today

I wonder what CLR James would make of the West Indies cricket team's woeful performances in the World Cup they are hosting this month. James, who was born in Trinidad but lived for many years in the United States and Britain, wrote Beyond a Boundary, which is still regarded - let's face it, there isn't a lot of competition - as the greatest Marxist study of the noble game of cricket. Here's a taste of the book, which is still in print:

I haven't the slightest doubt that the clash of race, caste and class did not retard but stimulated West Indian cricket. I am equally certain that in those years social and political passions, denied normal outlets, expressed themselves so fiercely in cricket (and other games) precisely because they were games. Here began my personal calvary. The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind you the sordid compromises of everyday existence. Yet for us to do that we would have had to divest ourselves of our skins. From the moment I had to decide which club I would join the constrast between the ideal and the real fascinated me and tore at my insides. Nor could the local population see it otherwise. The class and racial rivalries were too intense. They could be fought out without violence or much lost except pride and honor. Thus the cricket field was a stage on which selected individuals played representative roles which were charged with social significance.

James' most famous work, though, was The Black Jacobins, his history of the thirteen year revolution and anti-imperialist war that made Haiti the first independent black republic. Along with EP Thompson's The Making of the Working Class, James' epic helped to usher in a new type of history that gave a voice to groups previously excluded from most narratives of the past. The London Socialist Historians group is holding a conference on The Black Jacobins to mark the seventieth anniversary of its publication. Wish I could go.

Conference to be held at the Institute of Historical Research, London,
Saturday 2 February 2008.

Throughout many of the events organised in Britain to commemorate the bicentenary of the British abolition of the slave trade, one voice has been missing: that of the rebellious slaves themselves, in particular those of St. Domingue/Haiti, the authors of the only successful slave revolt in history, and the people who did more than Wilberforce or anyone else to bring the slave system to an end.

2008 will mark the seventieth anniversary of the publication of The Black Jacobins, CLR James's classic history of the Haitian Revolution. The London Socialist Historians Group and the Institute of Historical Research will commemorate this anniversary with a one day conference.

Keynote speakers confirmed so far include Darcus Howe, Bill Schwarz, editor of West Indian Intellectuals in Britain and Marika Sherwood, author of After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807.

Papers will be considered on any aspect relating to The Black Jacobins and its legacy, but suggested topics that might be addressed include:

i) The making of The Black Jacobins: CLR James's life: his personal biography, the impact of his time in Trinidad, in Nelson, London and Paris on the writing of the work.

ii) The Black Jacobins itself as a masterpiece of historical writing and the intellectual influences on James which made the work not only a Marxist classic but an epic 'grand narrative' which overthrew the existing interpretations of slavery and its abolition.

iii) The intellectual inspiration of The Black Jacobins for historians, and the impact of the work on historical literature in Europe, America, Africa and the Caribbean.

iv) The intellectual inspiration of The Black Jacobins for activists and the impact of the work on those involved in liberation struggles in Europe, America, Africa and the Caribbean.

v) The Haitian Revolution itself; its impact on the wider struggle against colonial slavery and in particular its impact on the anti-slavery campaign in Britain.

vi) The legacy of Toussaint L'Ouverture as a revolutionary leader.

For further information or to send abstracts of papers (up to 1,000 words) until 1 October 2007: Christian Hogsbjerg ( or David Renton

Thirty thousand, and our first Libyan

This blog recently got its thirty-thousandth unique visitor since a tracker was installed last April. We even got our first visitor from Libya, which gives me an excuse to post that country's flag here.

I have a long-standing fondness for the Libyan flag which has nothing to do with admiration for Muammar Gadaffi and the 'Green revolution' he has apparently been staging since taking power more than thirty years ago. Back at primary school, when my extreme ineptitude as an artist regularly made me the butt of classroom jokes, I was able to escape from an assignment to paint a large national flag with my dignity intact after spotting the Libyan banner in an encyclopedia. My teacher, who had wanted me to try my hand at the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack, had to grudgingly give way, after making a few noises about the lack of imagination of certain foreigners. Thanks then, Libya.

Monday, April 16, 2007

The road to Jerusalem

Last week Skyler and I drove up the Whanganui River gorge towards Jerusalem (Hiruhrama), an old Maori settlement that became the site of a nineteenth century Catholic convent, and then the famous commune headed by the poet and prophet James K Baxter in the late 1960s. We wanted to visit the convent church and Baxter's grave.

The settlements in the gorge take the name of great cities, despite the fact that each consists of little more than a marae or church and a cluster of old houses wedged between the river and bush-covered hills. We had only half a tank of gas when we entered the gorge, but we'd been assured that there was 'a pump' near Koroniti (Corinth), about halfway to Jerusalem. Well, there was. I'm still waiting to see Jerusalem.

Maire Leadbeater on East Timor: insights and oversights

The Presidential elections held in East Timor on April the 9th have proved inconclusive, and a second round of voting will be necessary to decide between Jose-Ramos Horta and Fretilin's Lu Olo. Over at leftwrites Michael Berrell has some interesting thoughts on the election campaign and results, and on the possible futures of East Timor.

Another person who will be watching events in East Timor closely is Maire Leadbeater, who has just published a book called Negligent Neighbour: New Zealand complicity in the invasion and occupation of East Timor. This book should be compulsory reading for Kiwis interested in East Timor, because few of us have the knowledge of East Timor that Maire Leadbeater has acquired during her long career as an activist and advocate for the country's people.

The complicity of Australasian governments in Indonesia's genocidal rule over East Timor is fairly well known, but many readers will be surprised to encounter Leadbeater's criticisms of the Anzac occupation of the country that began late last May and shows no sign of ending. By characterising this occupation as neo-colonial, Leadbeater takes a sharply different line from the mainstream of the Kiwi left, which has followed her brother Keith Locke in welcoming Australasian military interventions in the Asia-Pacific region, even as it complains about the use of Anzac troops in the US's Middle East wars.

Leadbeater remains, though, a staunch defender of the Australian-led 1999 occupation of East Timor, and this creates a strange contradiction in her arguments. Her book asks us to believe that the Australian and New Zealand governments behaved atrociously towards East Timor in the decades before 1999, and are behaving badly again, but that there was a brief period when their armies suddenly became a force for the liberation of the country.

What caused this peculiar interlude in a grim history of imperialistic behaviour? How did armies that have enlisted in imperialist wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq briefly transmogrify into instruments of radical left-wing politics? Leadbeater seems to believe that the governments of John Howard and Jenny Shipley were forced into a bout of anti-imperialism because of the pressure applied by protesters in 1999. This seems to me to be an extremely naive argument.

It's true that there were large demonstrations in several Australasian cities denouncing Indonesian behaviour in East Timor in 1999. Under the influence of groups like the Greens and (in Australia) the Democratic Socialist Party, these demonstrations demanded the deployment of Anzac troops to East Timor to secure the nation's independence. But most of these demonstrations took place after the Australian, Portugese and American governments had realised the impossibility of continued Indonesian control of East Timor, and prepared a new strategy designed to replace Suharto with a pliant Timorese elite that would safeguard Western oil and gas interests.

The massive demonstrations that have followed Australian involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars surely show the foolishness of the idea that Howard was forced to act against the interests of Australian and US imperialism just because a few thousand people marched through Sydney. Howard has remained utterly steadfast in his commitment to the Iraq occupation despite marches by tens of thousands of people and a string of electoral disasters. East Timor activists who think they turned Bush's deputy sheriff into an anti-imperialist are kidding themselves.

Leadbeater might possibly concede these points, yet argue that the intervention of 1999 was justified, even if it led to Australian domination of East Timor, because it at least ended the massacre of Timorese by pro-Indonesia militias. This argument, too, has feet of clay. The militias did commit some appalling crimes, but they were poorly armed, and could easily have been defeated by East Timor's Falintil guerrillas. Tragically, the Fretilin party which controlled Falintil accepted the dictates of Portugal and Australia and locked its troops in isolated cantons during the UN-supervised referendum on independence.

Fretilin leaders like Xanana Gusmao and Mari Alkatiri believed that they would antagonise Western powers by fighting the militias, and preferred to let hundreds of their people be massacred in the hope that this would aid the case for 'humanitarian' intervention being made on the streets of Australasia by activists like Leadbeater.

The refusal of Alkatiri and others to take the fight to the militias and complete the liberation of East Timor created a major split in Fretilin and at least two mutinies in Falintil. A breakaway from Fretilin called the Committee to Defend the Democratic Republic of East Timor (CPD-RDTL) opposed cantonment and, later, the presence of UN troops in East Timor. On at least two occasions, Falintil troops sympathetic to the CPD-RDTL's arguments broke out of their cantonments, engaged pro-Indonesian militias, and scored easy victories. (After they took power, the 'official' Fretilin leaders began to persecute the CPD-RDTL; the Anzac troops that Leadbeater and others had demanded be sent to East Timor took part in this persecution, raiding the isolated villages where the dissidents were strongest and making politically-motivated arrests.)

Even without the resistance of Falintil, the terror campaign waged by the pro-Indonesia militias had largely collapsed by the time the Australian-led occupation of East Timor began. In a new piece of research he is about to publish, Aussie activist and historian Tom O'Lincoln shows that killings by militias had largely subsided before the end of September.

In 1999 East Timor swapped Indoensian domination for Australian domination. Leadbeater is right to see that the current occupation of the country was designed to maintain Aussie control, by unseating the excessively independent government of Mari Alkatiri and replacing it with the pro-Canberra stooges Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta. She no doubt also realises that, in the months since her book was written, Anzac troops have committed a series of human rights abuses in East Timor, including the tank attack on Comoro refugee camp in February that killed two youths. What Leadbeater still hasn't come to terms with is the fact that the intervention of 1999 created the current situation in East Timor.

If the East Timorese had completed the liberation of their country themselves, then they could have achieved genuine independence, rather than the status of a semi-colony of Australia. The treachery of the Fretilin leadership and the stupidity of Leadbeater and much of the Australasian left played a large part in preventing East Timor from winning genuine independence. Like the misguided leftists who supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Leadbeater needs to realise that imperialist troops are never a force for liberation.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Raewyn reviews the launch

Auckland writer and editor Raewyn Alexander has written a generous review of last Thursday's book launch. Her take on the event will appear in issue five of Magazine, which will be launched in November with the theme 'Utu, justice'. Issue four of Magazine is out now - copies cost $25 apiece, and can be ordered from BF Publishing at

Event Review
Alleluya Cafe, St. Kevin’s Arcade Karangahape Road
Titus Books’ Launch
Luce Cannon by Will Christie
To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps by Scott Hamilton
Conversation with a Stone by Richard Taylor,
launched by Olwyn Stewart, music by The Vietnam War.

Hail, rain and bitter cold notwithstanding, I braved the late afternoon and caught a bus to the venue I always love, Alleluya Cafe. An event about to take place, a book launch where I could buy a book or three, hear some readings and talk with people. In this case, live music was also played.

Reviews of the three books follow this response to the launch.

Richard Taylor’s poetry my prime reason for freezing in Awkward City (til I reached the heavenly close of Alleluya). I wanted to see what he’d developed, after all we were Poetry Brats together. Also, I find Taylor’s writing ingenious, displaying much insight and clever humour.

Titus Books seem to be creating quite a spark and stir around the country. The other two poets, Will Christie and Scott Hamilton I did not know that well, but Titus publish good, challenging work as far as I’ve seen. (They are also about to launch David Lyndon Brown’s first novel, a really eerie tale I know from workshopping the manuscript, and I was pleased to see Olwyn Stewart’s novella appeared through Titus last year, I think).

The band’s name another reason for my foray, ‘Who would call a band The Vietnam War?’ I kept blurting in amazement. Their strange, dramatic but gentle country-punk, or is that country-emo? really suited the gothic weather anyway. Their new singer Lucy makes them all look good, I’d say and she sounded like an angel who knows how to mend glass with fire. The band really tight too, playing for instance a version of 'Dock of the Bay' speeded up, which still made ‘wasting time’ make golden sense by some alchemy in their practice.

The Vietnam War set the mood with their wry drone and twangs, we settled in for challenging poetry ably launched by Olwyn Stewart, with a succinct overview of each poet’s writing. ‘These writers all do have something worthwhile to say,’ she said in conclusion, and they did.

Scott Hamilton told a story about pasting up posters by the artist who designed his book cover. The posters showed GW Bush with a moko. Someone passing, while Scott and co., pasted away, asked if that fellah GW was a Maori. Scott said he guessed so. The passer-by exclaimed, ‘Ahhh, must be one of those Ngapuhi, I bet.”

Hamilton’s poetry left me with a lot to think about, he read clearly and his spiral logic with some quantum vaults to the moon did seem like easy steps, maybe there were seven, as well.

The publisher left good time to ponder before introducing Richard Taylor. Readings from Conversation with a Stone soared, fluttered and stomped, everything a dance would do if it changed into poetry. Taylor read with aplomb. Another ex-Poetry Brat wished Taylor the best, Yves Harrison appeared for a short while. Yves also grown up, maybe we’ve all moved on, well?

Will Christie read then, and her poetry from Luce Cannon displayed such assortment, lucidity and surprise that it seemed like time hovered with my mind. The effect of rain and traffic noise behind the end of Christie’s reading also sounded like vibration-music that suited her words, as well as anything especially orchestrated. I googled luce for a definition I think the urban dictionary, number three meaning, is the most apt. You could agree or not, poetry holds many meanings and Christie’s perhaps more than most.

A lot of this aside as far as one patron thought. He spluttered at me earlier when The Vietnam War played, ‘What language is that they are singing in?’

When I replied it seemed like American country maybe, kind of, he scowled. Later, after all the poetry, he got up and sang a powerful 'Po Kare Kare Ana' and 'Hoki Mai', complete with Maori-guitar styles. Many people danced, including some of the Vietnam War, and I got the chance to have a good sing in the audience.

Alleluya Cafe staff cheery, cool and helpful as usual. They placed chairs on tables slowly and the crowd edged along, chatting, til we were more or less out of there, without realising we’d gone. Not even a smelly cab home could ruin my good mood, I just opened the cab window for good air and let the city stream past, rain gone by then. Reviewing events could evolve into one of my best habits with any luck, wish me some.

Auckland, New Zealand,12th April 2007"

Thanks Raewyn.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

'Pokarekare ana, nga wai o Waiapu...'

Skyler's post on last Thursday's book launch got two things wrong.

In the first place, Skyler failed to acknowledge that for the past few weeks she has been the hidden power behind the Titus throne - without her nimble negotiating skills and stern phone calls, lumbering males like messers Hamilton and Cross would have been powerless in the face of recalcitrant printers and editors. A big thankyou, comrade.

Skyler also neglected to remember that one of the coolest parts of the launch party came late in the evening, when the crowd was dispersing and the owner of Alleluya Cafe was trying to shut up shop. A self-described 'fair dinkum guy from the Naki' stormed the PA system, installed a drummer at the kit The Vietnam War were about to dismantle, picked up a Hawaiian guitar and, to the delight of the remaining boozers, proceeded to bang out 'Pokarekare Ana' and half a dozen other classics before he was chased away. Don't you wish you were there?

Skyler posted a few pieces from my book, but I'd like to throw the spotlight onto Will Christie and Richard 'the big man' Taylor. If you want to know why Will paid for the cost of her book with last night's sales alone, check out my discussion of one of the poems that has found a home in Luce Cannon. And if you want to understand how the wildman of old was replaced by the determined teetotaller of Thursday night, then you could do worse that check out a preposterously long interview I did with Richard way back in 2004, when this blog was learning to crawl.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Titus launches Scott, Will and Richard

Last night saw the launch of Scott's book To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps at Alleluya Cafe in St Kevins Arcade, K'Rd, Auckland. Jack Ross supplied the back cover blurb:
"Scott Hamilton's heroes, like WH Auden's 'helmeted airmen', are forever setting out on some doomed quest...Scott delves into the mytho-poetic past of New Zealand, showing that this past is alive and shared"

Scott shared the stage with Will Christie, who was giving birth to Luce Cannon, and Richard Taylor, who is the proud father of Conversation with a Stone(click on the photos to enlarge them).

Besides readings from Scott, Will, and Richard, the hundred or so people who braved gridlocked traffic and cold slanted rain to get to K Rd were treated to two sets of music by The Vietnam War. Since Titus Books started publishing in 2005 it has been a real supporter of cutting edge literature and has managed to build a real feeling of community amongst its authors and readers. As Jack Ross said, "Titus is the Flying Nun of twenty-first century NZ lit".

Thanks to Brett and Bill for all the hard work in publishing the three books launched last night and for their their ongoing work supporting NZ writers.

Thanks to Ellen Portch, as well, for painting the amazing cover of To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps and designing the cover of Richard's book.

This post is my chance to pick out a few of my favourite poems from Scott's book. If you like them, then you should order the whole thing from Titus Books...

The Book

Language is like a labelling gun, someone had told them. The boy goes from room to room taking aim. In the sunroom he labels a rocking horse; in the lounge he shoots a fir tree. She apologises to Sam, and to the guests, and hurries him upstairs to bed. Before the light goes out he takes possession of DOOR, BAD BEAR, and A FUNNY BUG. In the dark he tries to count her footsteps on the stairs, but the numbers run out after eleven. When the footsteps run out too he jumps out of bed, switches the light back on and steps into the wardrobe, where Mummy thinks she has hidden the book on his socks and undies shelf. He sits beside the bed and opens the book carefully. A is for ASTRONAUT. B is for BROWN BEAR. C is for CAMPER. D is for DOOR, which swings open to show Mummy holding a funny-looking glass with blood in it. 'Put that book away and go to bed, dear, or Daddy will be angry, and you'll never be an astronaut.' 'Can't we read it first Mummy?' 'For fuck's sake Simon! Shit! I mean no, no, sorry my dear, Mummy has to go and help Daddy help his friends, or Daddy will be angry. You understand. Now keep the light out. Sleep. Why don't you pretend you're sleeping in the tent?' The light goes off and the door shuts, but this time he doesn't count the footsteps. He lies on his stomach and closes his eyes, and listens to the big voices and the ringing glasses down where the stairs run out. He can't sleep. He doesn't want to sleep. He reaches under the bed and feels for the book with one hand, pushing Boring Bear and the rest of the Boring Toys out of the way. This time he stands beside the light switch for a few seconds before flicking it down. Straight away he hears footsteps on the stairs. Heavier, this time. His father's. Daddy's. He is not afraid, this time: he knows what he is going to do. He takes the book and opens it at his favourite page, at F is for FOREST. Big trees capped with snow stand straight and close together, and brown bears gather beside a river that is as fast and white as the Hooka Falls. It is Hooka Falls, he thinks. His father shouts something from the top of the stairs. He puts F is for FOREST on the ground, and straightens his back, and puts his feet together, and bows his head, so that he's standing the way he has to stand at the start of Keas meetings. He closes his eyes. He puts one foot then the other forward, shouting 'F is for FOREST' as loudly as he can. He opens his eyes and sees his feet instead of the big trees and the bears. He hears the small sound of the book's spine snapping, of a doorknob turning. D is for DOOR. D is for DADDY. He begins to cry.

The Analyst

Breathing is easier underwater. The knife between my teeth tastes of rust, as I dive through seaweed and shoaled flounder, toward a treasure chest capsized in estuary mud. I know that someone has been here before me, that the coins and statuettes have been looted, the ancient manuscripts spoiled. I know that the chest's rotten mahoganny and rust-red bolts are my treasure.

'A male fantasy', you say, shifting the teacup in your hands. 'Slightly infantile, too'. One afternoon your office's green carpet will rise, our couches will capsize, and we'll both drown calmly, teacups in hand. Until then we'll talk. Talking to you is as easy as breathing: one word follows another, as one breath follows another, until the story, the seven deep breaths, is complete, and a chain of bubbles rises toward the ceiling.

Te Kooti and His Natives Visit Terror Upon Matawhero

The pen had lost its firepower.
A sword through Biggs, the racist
magistrate: swords through his wife
his child. Blood pooled, and hardened,
begat a nimbus of flies:
‘now hear ye
the doctrine of
the upraised hand.’
The equipment is well-maintained
but obsolete.

The stream flows between mountains
but its surface is smooth.

The quill is sheathed
but documents still circulate.

The doctrine is a book
with no back cover.


At the edge of Temuka the road is blocked by three bales of hay, a black flag, and the last two O’Shanessey kids, who take turns holding the rifle their cousin brought back from the Somme. Ousiders get sent back to the city: Maoris have to keep to Arowhenua, on the far side of the creek we dive in to wash the sickness away.

When Queenie got the cramps we took her to the small house behind the marae, and laid her out on clean sheets, and fetched a bucket of creekwater, and cooled her stomach and hips, and washed the mushrooms under her arms. The younger kids giggled beside the bed, expecting another baby cousin. First her fingernails then her hands turned black; her breasts swelled, popped their nipples, and dribbled blue-black milk. We couldn’t straighten her arms in the coffin, so we folded them across her chest. She looked like she was diving into herself.

A Defence of Common Sense (for GE Moore)

I know that my body has never been to the moon

I know that numerous physical things exist independently of me, like coal-slag or the moon

I know that this is my hand

I know that the hand, like the skull, is a product of human labour

I know that the coins in my jacket pocket are silver

I know that if a dollar coin were in my jacket pocket it would be silver

I know that her hair is brown

I know that if I dip an aspirin in cyanide and swallow it I will not feel better

I know that all planets follow elliptical orbits

I know that Hayden crapped off his Mongoose onto broken glass, on his way from the dairy back to the boatshed, where the rest of the Terrahawks were waiting

I know that we used to leave our bikes at the bottom of the bank behind the boatshed, in the cutty grass beside MacGregor’s fence, a place nobody knew

I know that after Hayden’s new bike was stolen we told his parents he’d lent it to his cousin, then snuck out after tea and threw a small rock and some gravel onto the roof of MacGregor’s chook house

I know that most philosophers die in bed

I know that the first Saturday of those summer holidays we rode quickly, more quickly than usual, up the hill at the end of O’Shanessy’s Rd, to the big green corrugated iron door and the tree with the sign nailed to its trunk saying AUCKLAND SUN CLUB – RING FOR SERVICE

I know that we braked hard where the road turned to gravel, and watched as Neil rode steadily up to the door, and punched the buzzer, and turned and laughed and shouted ‘BURN HOME TO MUMMY, YOU BIG WUSSES!’

I know that my body has never been to the moon

I know that it is possible to distinguish a mammal from a lump of rock

I know that a rock becomes conscious in mid-air

I know that my jaw moves for me whenever I begin another meal

I know that there were eleven brushstrokes of rust on the left hull of HMS Waitomo this morning, as she sat anchored in her reflection, off Devonport Naval Base

I know that I got stoned for the first time at North Head, in a lava-rock cell at the end of a concrete tunnel, a cell with a jagged window giving a view across Motukorea Channel, over the orange buoy-lights wrecked on Bastion Reefs, to the blinking headlights of Savage Memorial car park

I know that it was worst joint Neil had ever rolled

I know that Neil was crouching beside me with his head turned the other way, talking, trying to impress the girl, telling her about the twenty-three page letter he had written to his father in Rakaia Prison, and the postcard he’d received in return, the advice to FUCK OFF TO YOUR MOTHER, YOU LITTLE SHIT

I know that I stood up and began to walk backwards down the concrete tunnel, cupping my hands and trying to relight the roach

I know that the wind got colder on my back, and messed up my hair, and I remember looking up, to see stars all over the ceiling, and looking down, to see grey dust blowing around my feet, and looking left, or right, and seeing the earth, as big as a beach ball, floating stupidly in the black

I know that my body has never been to the moon


The soldier stepped out of the pines, and walked
to the centre of the clearing, and knelt
and dug a hole, a long shallow hole, with his hands,
and lay down in his hole
and covered himself with dirt
and had a heart attack.
This happened five thousand times, maybe
more, in Katyn forest, in 1940.

At the Cheeky Kumara Cafe
we choose a window table.
Threshers the size of tanks
level a field of wheat,
a field of barley,
and three moths stick to our window.
They are scraps of paper,
scraps of thin yellow paper,
Polish army stationery issue,
scraps from the same page of a letter,
from Leszek Staff's last letter to Gertrude Boll,
written in Smolensk, on May the 5th, 1940,
and torn up by an NKVD intelligence officer
who got hard reading about troop movements
and resistance cellsnot a pair of silk lace stockings
slipping off freshly shaven legs
in Krakow Municipal Gardens.
You stir the last of the sugar into my tea.

We know how to dispose of our dead
correctly. Follow that gravel road
over a train track, then up a small hill
until the fields part for a red-rooved chapel
and its flock of stones.
Every name there faces north.
Out the back, behind the water tap,
are plots reserved for the elderly, the infirm.
Red earth foams over the newest graves.

This afternoon the reverend's outmaking his rounds,
and relatives are at the races.
Nobody is there to see Leszek Staff
stagger out of the barley, and fall
to his knees, and dig
for four minutes, in the soft red soil,and lie down comfortably
to die, to be discovered. Outside the cafe
a truck backfires.

Monday, April 09, 2007


Or combined and uneven development, if you want to be technical. There's a text version here.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

East Timor update

Violence continues in East Timor in the lead up to Monday's Presidential poll. Supporters of the two main candidates, the pro-Australia Jose Ramos-Horta and Fretilin's Lu Olo, have been attacking each other in the capital Dili. The Anzac troops who are occupying the country under the flag of the UN have also been targeted: three of their vehicles have been seriously damaged in recent days. 'UN police' have fired 'warning shots' near the Australian embassy.

My piece on the contribution of the Anzacs to the election campaign has turned up in Portugese translation on this blog, and in Ocker translation on the Labor Tribune website. The Aussie group blog leftwrites has kicked off a debate on the Anzac presence in East Timor; argument is also raging at Topix East Timor, where a Timorese exile has posted an attack on the behaviour of Australian troops in his native country.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Stranger and stranger

As regular readers of this blog will know, Jack Ross is a friend of mine and one of the movers and shakers (I mean that literally, as well as figuratively) of the Kiwi literary scene.

Jack's politics are on the (non-Marxist) left, but he has a long-standing fascination with fascism and anti-semitism which has often found its way into his writing. Last year he wrote a remarkable and still-unpublished account of his visit to the site of the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, in the Czech Republic, as well as a head-spinning not-very-short story about Baudelaire and the origins of 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' which couldn't quite fit into brief #34. Jack's first book(let) was a translation of Ezra Pound's half-forgotten 'Fascist Cantos', and recently he published an article on the same poems in the electronic journal ka mate ka ora. Jack's article is so good that it almost made me want to read Pound again, and I jumped onto the computer this morning to advertise it.

Before I got around to doing that, though, I grazed the the online Guardian, and found Gary Younge telling the strange and somehow sad story of Lawrence Dennis, the intellectual leader of American fascism who was posthumously outed as an African American. The prodigously gifted Dennis was one of the hundreds of thousands of light-skinned African Americans who disguised themselves as white to escape racist prohibitions; he became a diplomat, a stock broker and, eventually, a propagandist for white purity who guested at one of the Nuremberg rallies. Only at the end of his life did Dennis display his real identity:

In what may have been his most audacious act of defiance, or evidence that he had finally given up the pretence, he eventually let his hair grow out. When he died, in obscurity, in 1977, he did so with an afro.

I've heard of Jews disguising themselves as Nazis, and it's been known for some time that Australia's leading neo-Nazi James Saleam had an Arab father, but an African American? I went googling for images of Dennis, and stumbled upon, which hails Dennis as a 'prophet of the global justice movement'.

Jack Ross - the other Jack Ross - seems to be some sort of terribly trendy 'Third Position' fascist who garnishes the politics of the far right with a few superficially left-wing phrases and references. These days, when the cannier fascists are keen to replace race with culture as the keystone of their bigotry, and organisations like the British National Party even include token Bangladeshis and Jews in their ranks, Dennis' ancestry probably isn't quite the sticking point it would once have been on the far right.

What can Jack Ross the fair dinkum liberal lefty Kiwi do about the bad advertising at Nothing, I suppose, except regret that his parents gave him such a ubiquitous name. Let's hope not too many readers of his books jump online, google his name, and come to the wrong conclusions. Don't come to me for a haircut, by the way.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The pines at Point Chev

I recently moved to Point Chevalier, a couple of square kilometres of flat fertile land extending into the Waitemata southwest of the harbour bridge. Coyle Park sits at the far end of the point, nudging a mangrove-infested estuary on its eastern side and a muddy beach on its west.

The park is disappointingly bare, except on its seaward fringes, where a line of tall pines block views of the North Shore. The trees are at once an imposing and rather pitiable sight: they have reached impressive heights and girths, but many of them stand crookedly, and a few have lost limbs to the wind. The local council has begun the job of removing the sickest pines, and replacing them with hardier and more attractive natives.

The pines at Coyle Park were planted in the first years of the twentieth century, when the government in Wellington decided to build a hospital for infectious diseases at Point Chevalier. (The other end of the point was already occupied by the grandly eerie Whau Asylum, which would be renamed first Oakley and then Carrington Psychiatric Hospital before being abandoned to the education sector in the '90s.) A windbreak was seen as an essential precondition for any serious building work, and so the fast-growing pines were planted in 1904.

The Auckland Hospital Board had got as far as building a galvanised iron kitchen and sinking a well when smallpox was discovered amongst Maori communities in the Kaipiara and Bay of Islands areas in 1913. A number of buildings were quickly raised and a few sufferers housed in them, but the outbreak never became an epidemic. In 1915 the half-built hospital was again pressed into service after an epidemic of measles swept through soldiers being housed temporarily at Narrowneck Naval Base on the North Shore.

Auckland's health bureaucrats were not too keen on the hospital, according to Alexander Walker's rickety but amiable centennial history of Point Chevalier:

The [Auckland Hospital] Board had never been favourably disposed towards the establishment of the Infectious Diseases Hospital, as it was in such close proximity to one of Auckland's favourite beaches.

It seems that the hospital was not used after 1915. It'd be interesting to know whether the fear of mass incursions of diseased Maori was a factor in the Board's hostility to the hospital. At the beginning of the twentieth century outbreaks of diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, and polio were most common amongst Maori, who by and large lived and died in isolated parts of the countryside. Most city-dwelling Pakeha wanted them to stay there.

A hospital for infectious diseases would have been sorely missed in 1918, the year influenza killed five thousand New Zealanders. Most of the victims were Maori in distant rural communities, but hundreds of Aucklanders also died. Hospitals were unable to cope with the epidemic, and many sufferers had to be treated at home.

By 1918, though, the end of Point Chevalier had been designated a scenic reserve. The hospital was dismantled in 1921; its staff building became the clubhouse of the Point Chevalier Yacht Club, before apparently burning down. Now the last traces of Auckland's Hospital for Infectious diseases look set to disappear. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)
One of Point Chev's better-known sons had a poem which seems relevant, even if it's set in another part of the country and describes another species:


Whatever happened, it happened.
In swamp, on lowlands, gum diggers find ancestors.
Sometimes a lot of them lying the one way
as though sometime was
a great wind which put down a bush if not a forest,
trunk by trunk, and they've been lying there unseen.
Their wood can still be good enough for working.
Hauled at, they are reluctant to be earth, turned over.
They are pigheaded.

On the climb to Ngapukehaua there's one
didn't go down, up there by himself standing
over teatree. He's not far from caves of the dead.
Maybe he feels responsible,
he's older. Nowadays

I have to stop for a breather.
He has been lightning smitten and gale struck.
He is failing from the top down.
I like to crouch into and lean my back against.
I say "Brother" and he sighs.