Thursday, January 31, 2008

Bernard Gadd's quest for security

Yesterday I blogged about the Quest for Security crew and their apparent nostalgia for the 'old New Zealand' of the postwar 'golden years'. Nostalgia can prompt some fine poetry, but if it is translated into politics then it soon throws up all sorts of problems. I think that the last years of Bernard Gadd, the poet, educationalist, and longtime political activist who died recently - I've just been reading the obituary at Jack Ross' blog - show up this danger.

Gadd was in many ways a tragic figure. He came from a staunchly left-wing family, lived most of his life in working class South Auckland, and always tried to combine his commitment to writing with a commitment to political activism. Gadd was involved in many flagship left-wing campaigns, like the movements against the Vietnam War and apartheid, and in the '70s and '80s he wrote and published a series of pioneering books about Polynesian history for schoolchildren. He even wrote the first-ever novel about Moriori life. In the 1980s and '90s, Gadd was an energetic opponent of the neo-liberal 'reforms' that blighted his community and others like it around the country.

In the last twenty years of his life, though, Gadd became an increasingly bitter figure, notorious for his attacks on biculturalism, the Treaty of Waitangi, and the nebulous conspiracies of 'political correctness'. Often Gadd's polemics against these scourges would look back nostalgically to New Zealand 'as it used to be', before the wrong turn of the '80s.

It seemed, to me at least, that Gadd's hatred of the new 'identity politics' that had emerged in the '70s and '80s came from the same place as his hatred of neo-liberalism. Gadd thought that Maori and other 'politically correct minorities' were dividing the Kiwi working class with their talk of historic grievances and ongoing oppression. Why couldn't we go back to the '50s, when there was never any of this sort of strife? Gadd's views are not unique, of course: Chris Trotter has been broadcasting the same ideas to much larger audiences for years now.

I only realised the extent of Gadd's disaffection a couple of years ago, when I became editor of the literary journal brief. I suggested to Gadd, who was an inveterate submitter of manuscripts to the journal, that he send me an essay about contemporary Maori culture, and its relationship to the resurgence of Maori nationalism. A couple of days later, a manuscript arrived. I was expecting that Gadd would kickstart a lively but comradely debate, but the bitterness of his essay, and the fact that it was couched in pseudo-Marxist jargon, dismayed me. I was also amazed that Bernard, who had researched the history of the Chatham Islands for his 1987 children's novel Dare not Fail, would be shameless enough to deploy the myth of the Moriori as a pre-Maori people in his polemic.

I thought, and still think, that Gadd's vision of nineteenth century history, in which a super-efficient British capitalism overwhelmed a static, backward Maori society, was based on an ignorance of the achievements of the market gardening economy that was thriving in Maori-controlled parts of the North Island before the Waikato War began.

Gadd also seems blissfully unaware of the decades of economic stagnation that followed the dispossession of Maori in many areas, as the parasitic profiteers who had demanded the invasion of the Waikato failed utterly to use vast stretches of conquered land, and Pakeha soldiers-turned-yeomen were forced by debts and a lack of markets to walk off their plots. I grew up near the remains of Peach Hill, a postwar community of small farmers that completely collapsed a decade or so after being founded on land confiscated from Maori.

At a deeper level, I dislike Gadd's theory of history, which assumes that 'superior' societies must devour 'inferior' societies, until ruthless capitalist expansion mysteriously transmogrifies into beneficent socialism. Gadd's iron law of 'progress' can easily be used to justify the genocide of American Indians and Australian Aborigines, not to mention the conquest of 'backward' Iraq by 'advanced' America.

I decided that Gadd's essay would need to be accompanied with a reply, but I never got around to either writing or soliciting one. I'm going to post it here, so that readers can decide for themselves whether my comments about Gadd's politics are fair. Long-suffering readers of this blog will know that I've written repeatedly against the use of Marxist concepts to justify colonisation and the destruction of the cultures of indigenous peoples; if you need a rejoinder to Gadd's caricature of Marx as a cynical imperialist, then you can try this essay.

In his tribute to Gadd, Jack Ross talks of the man's feistiness, and his belief that 'Opposition is true friendship'. I'm sure, then, that Bernard wouldn't mind a bit of posthumous polemic!

A culture of history

New Zealand’s New Age of Post-Modernist culture in which slogans and assertions are intellectual currency brighter than logic, reason, fact, or debate has arrived. Discussion of the history of relations between Maori and the New Zealand state offers a striking paradigm of fashionable simple-mindedness. The assumption of control of these islands by the British is continually presented as a narrative of imperialistic culture clash in which brute power invaded a Rousseauean Eden. Indeed it’s become a slogan of Rightist politics that cultures will clash, a dogma ignoring several thousand years of cultural, language, religious coexistence with contests only when something arouses competition between sections of people. Not even imperialism in the sense of a take-over of territory and peoples necessarily arouses resistance.

If we take note of the suggestions of Marx and Engels (whose intellectually provocative ideas the New Age thrusts aside) to look at how a society makes its living in order to gain a clearer view of how that society functions and what its persistent features are, we are more likely to decide that 19th century New Zealand saw a contest of economic or productive systems. The more effective won out, installing its own institutions and society.

The early 19th century Maori economy was of miniscule social groups trying for self-sufficiency. The system was inefficient, constant conflict prevented anything as cohesive as a society being erected on the foundation of the production system, and famine was its familiar:

and today a rangatira
butchered a boy of six years
not a child a slave
starving in a general famine
who stole from his possessor’s kete
the woman’s father struck
with his hatchet the little head
but failed in killing
so tied a rock about the neck
and flung him in a pool …

it’s said the food perhaps
was tapu

[The missionary attends a little dying]

Even when a few hapu later became something like peasant farmers, they had no way of creating sufficient capital to reshape productive capacity to feed the burgeoning total population of New Zealand, let alone to afford necessary infrastructure for distribution or export. The predilection of Maori leaders for holding onto land to allow old ways to linger helped no-one, and right up into the 1880s various hapu were trying to sustain or improve their productive capabilities at the direct expense of rivals, rather than through thorough-going innovation:

which rangatira to follow?
whose karakia to believe?
which greed grip to fear least?
which victories, retreats,
deaths shall light us


The Treaty of Waitangi has been completely recreated by lawyers ignorant of history and how to study it, and by politicians careless of those issues. Instead of an instrument intended to soften inevitable effects of British possession on indigenes in the war zone that was New Zealand, the Treaty has been transformed into a formal agreement for partnership in government between rangatira and the Crown, a notion inconceivable to either side in the 1840s and of no relevance in the democratic ethnically pluralistic 21st century. Of course a treaty of any sort suited well the purposes of Maori groups whose possession of lands was in 1840 comparatively recent:

the treaty tribes:
old scribbles
of land courts
and tribunal reliance
on the tales of people
whose ancestors came upon us
barely before the pakeha

[forerunners: Moriori and so many more]

The civil wars of the 1860s were our version of enclosures, carried out with the same zeal, ruthlessness, efficiency, and indifference to the suffering of those evicted from their homes and lands. And yet, as Engels and Marx insisted, we can never understand the past and its effects on us if we don’t attempt to see it as it actually was. The enclosures of Britain and the transfers of land in New Zealand enabled capitalism to develop. And without that nothing now would be worth lamenting losing, save for claims of cultural attachment to various parts of the landscape.
Following the wars some of the losers showed themselves attentive students of change:

& afterwards Titokowaru
ebulliently priced
for pastoralists
the bushels
of his cocksfoot seed

[pastoral idyll]

Of course the effects on those who lost primary resources and on those who gained them are plain yet:

this time the red’s not
imperial Brits
only the people with maybe no
phone car job house
of their own
spills across
the places of the iwi …
and the roller-door-store
city blocks
around them the paddocks
tipuna owned
glow page upon page
with the emerald show
of wealth

[the atlas of deprivation, 2001]

It’s literary cliché in many societies that the world’s best inducers of guilt are mothers. They have been supplanted by a host of indigenous leaders whose skills at inducing in millions of middle-class descendants of settlers a sense of shame at the successes of capitalism and a conviction that present and future generations ought to pay indigene-geld to whoever’s forebears lost the economic competition to provide fruitfully for the nation.

At the very same time, the compensation and guilt hucksters are fervent not only for capitalism but for its positively 19th century reincarnation as a financially imperialistic global free market. I dare say Marx and Engels would have approved, pointing out that such people have aligned themselves with the dominant trends of modern capitalism, have flowed with the economic and fiscal tides. And would have nodded to see the tenuous 19th century iwi become capitalistic corporate entities and creating an entire contemporary warrior class of lawyers, entrepreneurs, politicians, consultants, and public relations gurus.

What the pair might have queried was the whereabouts today of indigenous and other organisations expressing both the frustrations of those exploited by the capitalists and a determination to make a new, improved, fairer productive system for New Zealand which enhances our humanness. I doubt if they’d be impressed by what they’d see instead: a Romantic desire to meander again in the days before the pakeha or in some imagined pre-capitalist Avalon (but with steel, stoves, cell-phones). And they’d be asking where are the writers, artists, musicians enthusiastic for the fact that any economic system is always the author of its incipient replacement ... though they’d recognise plenty of well rewarded writers and the rest whose works show no interest in any such conception:

a literary icon I’ll be
and seekers of fame’ll emulate me
and spend quite a while
in business-like style
extolling their works for a fee


Bernard Gadd

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The quest for the past

Quest for Security is an interesting new group blog which takes its name and its credo from a book by WB Sutch, the ideologist-in-chief of Kiwi economic nationalism in the '50s and the '60s. In a recent post, Questor Oliver Woods explained his ideas in more detail, and lobbed a couple of hand grenades leftwards:

Socialism and communism, rightly so, have never taken root in New Zealand. This is because they are, generally speaking, imported ideologies from far-away lands that frankly are not particularly similar to our own. Only a handful of socialists have come from a genuinely New Zealand tradition. Only a handful of socialists have come from a genuinely New Zealand tradition and deserve to be given considerable attention - these include Bruce Jesson and radical Labour MP John A. Lee...

There is a very unsavoury tradition in New Zealand on both the left and right to import wholesale ideas from overseas...This is why New Zealand needs to return back to stronger more pragmatic centrist policies that used to work so well for us...

There is a pronounced nostalgia on Quest for Security for the good old New Zealand of the immediate postwar decades, when men were men, leftists were patriots, rugby games produced single figure winning scores, and goverments were elected to, well, govern, rather than organise tax cuts and business forums. For the Questors the New Zealand of Fraser, Holyoake, and Kirk is not only a paradise lost, but a paradise that we must regain.

Now, I have nothing but sympathy for the Questors' criticisms of the neo-liberal 'reforms' which in the late '80s and '90s dismantled the protected economy and comprehensive welfare state that had been built here since the election of the first Labour government in 1935. Nobody will ever convince me that market rents should have been paid for state houses, that the Bank of New Zealand should have become Michael Fay's personal fiefdom, or that students should have had to pay for the abolition of inheritance tax by taking out hefty loans to pay for their studies.

I can't help quibbling, though, with the Questors' suggestion that the ideology of economic nationalism is somehow uniquely rooted in the soil of this country, and that the ideas of WB Sutch and the policies of Rob Muldoon offer us a path beyond neo-liberalism in the twenty-first century.

Whether or not one considers that 'communism and socialism' have ever 'taken root' in New Zealand depends partly on how one defines 'communism and socialism'. If we define the terms reasonably generously and take a careful look at history, we can see a number of occasions where something approximating 'communism and socialism' did achieve a mass following in New Zealand. Most dramatically, there is the case of the 'Red' Federation of Labour, which called for the abolition of wage labour and worker control of the economy, and commanded the allegiance of a majority of the working class during the revolutionary general strike of 1913.

On the West Coast of the South Island, which was then a working class heartland, Red Fed strike committees briefly took power from the state in 1913. In Auckland and Wellington there was streetfighting between the Red Feds and the forces of the state.

The period between 1946-1951, when the Waterfront Workers Union and its allies challenged successive governments intent on bringing the Cold War into New Zealand industrial relations, offers a less dramatic but still notable example of radical ideas enjoying mass influence in the union movement.

There is another example of the mass influence of socialistic ideas which is often overlooked by Pakeha leftists. The Maori fight against colonisation in the nineteenth century saw the evolution of a set of ideas which have surprising parrallels with the European socialist tradition, and which would have delighted the elderly Marx.

Entities like the Waikato Kingdom and Parihaka came into conflict with the New Zealand state partly because of the way that they tried to build an economic system that fused features of pre-capitalist society with modified features of capitalism. Te Whiti challenged the capitalist system which was preparing to invade Parihaka when he praised the miracle of collective labour and refused to sell communally-owned land. The example of the 'Polynesian mode of production' established in places like Parihaka still resonates today inside the movement for tino rangatiratanga. Some of the best activists in that movement have been deeply influenced by Marxism.

It is difficult to see how social democracy is especially 'indigenous' to this country. Certainly, the New Zealand working class has, for most of its history, been inclined to support the Labour Party, whose politics can be described, very loosely, as social democratic. But has Labour ever been a dynamo of social democratic thought? The party has tended to be an intellectual wasteland.

Most of the heavy-duty thinking about how to implement a left reformist agenda in New Zealand has been done outside Labour, by self-described Marxists who have taken the view that a long period of reform must precede radical change in this country. Obvious examples are members of the pro-Moscow Socialist Unity Party and the China-friendly Workers Communist League in the '70s and '80s. Although they were small, these groups had a disproportionate, and usually negative, influence on the intellectual culture of the left, and many of their senior members became rocks of the union movement. During the second half of the eighties, when a neo-liberal Labour government was on the rampage, it was the leaders of the Socialist Unity Party who acted as Labour's chief apologists in the union movement. With their training in political theory and the skill for organising they had acquired in the SUP, they were far better at constructing and selling arguments for 'sticking with Labour' than most Labour members.

Today, a lot of the people developing a reformist strategy for the Kiwi left - think of most of the material in the journal Red and Green, for instance - would describe themselves as Marxists. Key 'left social democrats' in the labour movement, like Matt McCarten and Laila Harre, have well-trained Marxists sitting on their shoulders.

Oliver cites Bruce Jesson and John A Lee as thinkers whose ideas didn't come from overseas. It is true that both Jesson and Lee looked carefully at Kiwi society before they writing about it - but so have scores of 'socialist and communist' thinkers of various kinds. Although he disagreed with them on some crucial points, Jesson still took many ideas from his '70s debating partners Owen Gager and Dave Bedggood, who were Trotskyists and therefore, in the terms of the Questors' schema, purveyors of alien ideology. Lee took over a lot of Social Credit ideas that were floating around the Northern Hemisphere. I suspect the Questors need to rethink their equation of the hard left with alien ideas and the soft left with good old Kiwi common sense. Intellectual history is a lot more complex.

I think Quest for Security also needs to reconsider its belief that the blueprint for New Zealand in the twenty-first century could be found in WB Sutch's briefcase in the 1950s. The immediate postwar decades were a special period in New Zealand history, the like of which we will probably not see again. A worldwide capitalist boom built on the back of World War Two and New Zealand's status as Britain's farm meant that Kiwis briefly enjoyed one of the best standards of living in the world. Successive governments were able to use the boom conditions to build a protected, Kiwi-owned economy based on tarrifs and import substitution. We were even manufacturing our own car for a while.

But all these things came at a price: in the postwar decades New Zealand was subordinated politically to Britain and the United States, and a partner to Cold War follies like the neo-colonial wars in Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Our society was culturally impoverished and - in its official expressions, at least - homogenous, with the conservative rural regions setting the tone. Maori were subjected to assimilation, and were losing their culture at an accelerating rate. Women were confined to the bedroom and the kitchen.

Even if we wanted to replicate the society of the '50s in the twenty-first century, we would surely be unable to do so. After the end of the postwar boom and Britain's entry into the European Community in the '70s New Zealand's economy went into freefall. The welfare state, the protected economy, and other gains of the era that had begun with the election of Savage and Lee in 1935 could not be preserved within the terms of a capitalist economy. The bosses found their saviours in Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, who put the economy through an acid bath to eliminate unproductive capital. A leaner, meaner, internationalised economy emerged, and today not even the left social democrats of the tiny Alliance Party advocate turning the clock back to the '70s. In the new conditions, nationalisation rarely makes sense for capitalism - there are exceptions, of course, like Air New Zealand, but they are and will be rare.

I've written a little here and here about the consequences of the internationalisation of the Kiwi economy for left-wing political strategy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Dem bones

A couple of weeks ago I castigated works of pseudo-history, and in particular Gavin Menzies' masterpiece of pseudo-history 1421: the Year China Discovered the World. Since then a number of pseudo-historians have turned up in the comments boxes here, to talk about how Celts or Indians or little green men discovered the place we know today as New Zealand.

One commenter, David Dray, believes that pre-Maori settlement of these islands is confirmed by the radiocarbon dating of rat bones:

Love to see you try to explain those rat bones Maps. They blow apart all the myths of the liberal intellectual establishment. That's why there's a conspiracy to keep quiet about them. The bones don't lie!

After I failed to respond promptly to his challenge, David posted a little celebration:

What about the RAT BONES Maps?
YOU have no ANSWER to those BONES!


I hate to piss on Dave's parade, but I think the case he's celebrating counts against the notion of pre-Maori settlement, and definitively disproves the claim that there exists some sort of nefarious secret society of liberal academics determined to quash research into the early settlement of these islands.

The bones David refers to belonged to a kiore, or Polynesian rat, which was dug out a remote Hawkes Bay hillside by a group of amateur archaeologists back in the '50s. One of the group noticed that the rat had been found underneath the layer of ash deposited by a volcanic eruption at Lake Taupo about eighteen hundred years ago. He placed the rat in a matchbox, and deposited it in a museum. There the critter remained for four decades, until biologist Richard Holdaway subjected it to new-fangled radiocarbon testing which seemed to confirm its vintage.

Holdaway's finding caused a sensation amongst Kiwi archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians, because it suggested that humans got to New Zealand far earlier than had been suspected. Kiore could not reach these shores without human help, but archaeological evidence for settlement trails off about 1300 AD, and analysis of pollen, seeds and other records kept by mother nature suggests that humans had not been doing much to disurb the environment much before that date. If it did arrive here about eighteen hundred years ago, then the kiore was as unsuccessful as the humans who brought it: analysis of the casing of seeds shows that marks made by rats' teeth do not appear before about 1280 AD. How, then, can Holdaway's finding be explained?

Holdaway himself has protested that he does not have the expertise to supply a detailed explanation for the anomalous kiore. He has suggested that a group of Polynesians probably arrived with some rats, dropped them off, and either returned home or died without establishing a viable colony. The rats survived, and had an impact on the populations of many indigenous species. Some other scholars have assented to this view, and tried to fill out its details, but they struggle to explain why seed casings do not show evidence that rats existed on these islands as little as eight hundred years ago.

Led by archaeologist Atholl Anderson, other scholars have aggressively disputed Holdaway's finding. Sceptics have queried the accuracy of radiocarbon dating and the veracity of the archaeologist who boxed and deposited the rat, and have asked whether the kiore bones might have been deposited under the Taupo ash layer by nefarious rabbits. Subsequent expeditions to the site of the original find have yielded up the bones of other kiore, but only above the ash layer. Radiocarbon tests on the new finds have not produced any surprises. The debate that Holdaway's find initiated is far from over.

I think that the kiore bone controversy has two lessons for pseuds like David Dray. In the first place, it shows that researchers on New Zealand history are not some sort of monolithic bloc engaged in a conspiracy of silence about key questions like the date of the first settlement of these islands. Debate about Holdaway's findings has been public, loud, and sometimes vituperative. It has raged in academic journals, at conferences, on the internet and even, on occasion, in the mainstream media.

David should also note that the kiore bones are deemed problematic by experts precisely because they collide head-on with evidence that there could not have been any more than, at best, a tiny human population on these islands until less than a thousand years ago. The massive civilisation which people like David posit would have entailed the felling of many trees and the widespread use of fire, amongst many other things. Where is the natural record of such events, if they took place more than a thousand years ago?

For a warning about 'alternative archaeology', and a thorough explanation of why it is so very unikely that Celts or Phoenicians got here before Polynesians, visit this excellent page at the Archaeological Association of New Zealand site.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Who needs Tangiers? We've got Ohura...

Let's face it - Bohemia ain't what it used to be. London is over-run with Kiwi expats doing the OE thing, Hemingway's Paris is unbearably expensive, and Tangiers is full of American poseurs scribbling the sequel to On The Road in boutique cafes. Down here in New Zild, Frank Sargeson's Takapuna has become a yuppie wonderland, and Dunedin is infested with faded Flying Nun stars more interested in shooting up than rehearsing.

I want to propose the lovely little town of Ohura, in the hinterland of the King Country, as a new locus for writers, musos, painters, and home brewers. Situated in the magical triangle between Taumaranui, Waitomo, and the wild west coast, near the centre of King Tawhiao's old 'country of the hat', Ohura owes its existence to the inexplicable decision of bureaucrats to send the railroad to New Plymouth branching off the main trunk line before Taumaranui, the town which was supposed to be the nerve centre of the whole North Island railway system.

For whatever obscure reason, the line detaches itself after Te Kuiti, wanders through fifty kilometres of hilly country, and then aligns itself with the road that runs out of Taumaranui down to the 'Naki and New Plymouth. Two service towns, Ohura and the even smaller Matiere, were built to justify the detour. Since the deregulation of rail in the '80s and the steep drop in freighting volumes, Ohura has been in decline. A small prison plugged the gap for a while, but when it was closed a few years ago the town's population shrank again. Enter the arty-farty types, lured by cheap house prices, a beautiful sheltered valley, and - the legacy of that prison - a buried fibre optic cable.

Here are some photos Skyler, Muzzlehatch and I took on Boxing Day, when we drove down to case out Ohura. You know you want to move there.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Compare and contrast

New Zealand would like to applaud the contribution that the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan and member states have made in assisting the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan...

New Zealand is a small country, but we remain committed to supporting Afghanistan in its progress toward political and economic stability...Let me close by reiterating our commendations for the distance that Afghanistan as a nation has travelled in such a short time.

New Zealand statement on Afghanistan to the UN Security Council, 14/3/2006.

I strongly believe that we are making a difference in Afghanistan...Our actions in Afghanistan remind us that the New Zealand Defence Force has long distinguished itself in the range of humanitarian and peace support operations that it has undertaken. But there are times when the use of force is required. That is why the Defence Force is trained and equipped for all contingencies, including combat.

This has been underlined by the recent award of the Victoria Cross to Corporal Willie Apiata for his conduct when his SAS group was ambushed by Taliban fighters in 2003. This was a salutary reminder to us all that our Defence Force personnel face considerable risk when deployed.

- Helen Clark, speech on defence 11/12/07

Malalai Joya, haunted by death threats and assassination attempts in Afghanistan, sat on the other side of the world, clutching a cup of tea with her eyes cast downward...

In 2005, Joya was the youngest person to win a seat in the Afghan parliament's lower house, the Wolesi Jirga (House of the People).

"The international community will not succeed in Afghanistan, because the U.S. and its allies attacked Afghanistan under the name of liberating the country and the Afghan women, but they fought against the Taliban by supporting another bunch of terrorists," she said...

Earlier this year she bluntly told a journalist that the Afghan parliament was worse than a barn, "because at least donkeys and cows are somewhat useful."

Footage of the interview was played before her fellow MPs. On May 21, they angrily voted her out under Article 70 of the Afghan parliament's Rules and Regulations. The rule, apparently under revision at the time, states that lawmakers must not publicly criticize one another. Joya is suspended from parliament until after the current session ends in 2010.

- via the Defence Committee for Molailai Joya, 2007

via Associated Press, fifteen hours ago:

An Afghan court on Tuesday sentenced a 23-year-old journalism student to death for distributing a paper he printed off the Internet that three judges said violated the tenets of Islam, an official said...

Kambaksh's family and the head of a journalists group denounced the verdict and said Kambaksh was not represented by a lawyer at trial. Members of a clerics council had been pushing for Kambaksh to be punished...

Rhimullah Samandar, the head of the Kabul-based National Journalists Union of Afghanistan, said Kambaksh had been sentenced to death under Article 130 of the Afghan constitution. That article says that if no law exists regarding an issue than a court's decision should be in accord with Hanafi jurisprudence. Hanafi is an orthodox school of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence followed in southern and central Asia.

Square pegs, round hole...

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Talking of pseudo-history

Here's a sneak preview of Liberal Fascism: the Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, the new opus by Jonah Goldberg.

You can find a dissection of Goldberg and other shady characters of the American far right at the Orcinus blog, which I discovered via the equally worthy Dutch website Wisse Words. (I note that Wisse Words' challenge to this blog's interpretation of Orwell and the dystopian novel went unanswered: is anybody up to the job of whipping over to Holland and dropping a bomb in their comments box? Richard?)

Footnote: when I saw the name, I thought that Jonah Goldberg was the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners, a controversial tome which was reviewed in a number of big Kiwi newspapers and carried by at least some bookshops. Nathaniel, though, has corrected me in the comments box...

Monday, January 21, 2008

The limits of sincerity

One of Oscar Wilde's less celebrated quips was 'All bad poetry is sincere'. Somewhat ironic, you might say, considering that Wilde didn't write any good verse until the fervently gritty 'Ballad of Reading Gaol'. Wilde's maxim holds true, though, for Maya Angelou, who has just excreted a few words in honour of Hillary Clinton's assault on the White House. What I find most remarkable about Angelou is the number of cliches she manages to squeeze into relatively short poems. Here are some of the used goods in 'State Package for Hillary Clinton':

bitter, twisted lies

You may tread me in the very dirt

at her wits' end

She has been there and done that

in this race for the long haul

to make a difference

every woman and man who longs for fair play

Well, at least she didn't rhyme 'Sheik' with 'Greek' this time. But I find Angelou's 'poem', with its worn-out, vague, and sentimental language, indistinguishable from the stump speeches, soundbites, and TV spots which constitute the bulk of American political discourse. Poetry is supposed recompose and renew our language and our perceptions of the world, not recycle talking points from candidates' debates on CNN. Maya Angelou may be sincere, but her language is not. Poets should be the vanguard party of language, not clerks at the Ministry of Propaganda! As my mate Kendrick Smithyman used to say:

If we live, we stand in language.
You must change your words.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Police

We can hear Sting in Pt Chev, and he sounds awful.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Good bookshop, lousy book

The other day I went to check out the website of the Women's Bookshop, a long-time favourite watering hole for Auckland bookworms. Imagine my dismay when I found that the bookshop was not only stocking but enthusiastically promoting Gavin Menzies' piece of pseudo-history, 1421: the Year China Discovered the World. Here's what the Women's Bookshop site says about Menzies' offspring:

On 8 February 1421 the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, 500 foot long [yep, you read it right, 500 foot long] junks made from the finest teak and mahogany, were led by Emperor Zhu Di's loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was 'to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas' and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. Their journey would last over two years and circle the entire globe...

Gavin Menzies has spent fifteen years tracing the astonishing voyages of the Chinese fleet. Now, in a fascinating historical detective story, he shares the remarkable account of his discoveries and the incontrovertible evidence to support them, bringing together a compelling narrative, ancient maps, precise navigational knowledge, astronomy and the surviving accounts by Chinese explorers and the later European navigators. It brings to light the artefacts and inscribed standing stones left behind by the emperor¹s fleet,the evidence of sunken junks along its route and the ornate votive offerings left by the Chinese sailors wherever they landed, in thanks to Shao Lin, Goddess of the sea.

1421 is the story of a remarkable journey of discovery that rewrites our understanding of history. Our knowledge of world exploration as it has been commonly accepted for centuries must now be revised. 1421: The Year China Discovered the World is destined to become a classic work of historical detection.

Since Menzies published his book, not a single historian has assented to his claim that a fleet of Chinese ships circumnavigated the world in the 1420s. The maps that Menzies produced to back his claims that the Chinese got to places like Greenland and New Zealand have been exposed as obvious hoaxes. Some of them, for instance, include place names written in the modern Chinese script, which was only developed after Mao came to power at the end of the 1940s (Menzies may not have noticed this small problem because, despite wanting to rewrite Chinese history, he doesn't actually know Mandarin).

Much of the non-cartographic 'evidence' that Menzies cites for his theory is similarly absurd. For instance, he claims that the wrecks of fifteenth century Ming dynasty ships have been discovered up and down the coast of New Zealand. I must keep an eye out the next time I go down to Pt Chev Beach for a swim...

A lot of the evidence against Menzies' claims is presented at this website, which was set up by historians and Sinologists irritated by 1421.

Despite its absurd theses, Menzies' book has become a bestseller in many countries. Partly this reflects a slick marketing campaign by his publishers, who are the same outfit that gave us the Da Vinci Code. A big part of the success of the book, though, is due to the resurgent Chinese nationalism which has been one of the side-effects of the spectacular economic growth there over the past couple of decades. And the 1421 myth has support in high places: in 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao regurgitated one of Menzies' claims when he told a joint session of China's parliament that his country had 'discovered' Australia.

I know what you're thinking. Why get so het up about a bit of Chinese myth-making, especially when it's being orchestrated by a former Pommy submarine driver who left school at fifteen and doesn't know that coconuts can float across oceans? The Brits have King Arthur, the Americans have JFK - why can't China's burgeoning elite create its own fact-free nationalist myth? And fair enough, I'd say, were it not for the way that Menzies' book contributes to some pervasive, harmful, and - let's not forget - profoundly stupid myths about the history of this fair land.

After working on the Information Desk at a major New Zealand museum for a few months, I can tell you, dear readers, that there is still a bewildering amount of bewilderment about the pre-history of these islands. A lot of the confusion surrounds the question of pre-Maori habitation of New Zealand. Despite a complete absence of evidence, many New Zelanders - Maori, as well as Pakeha - and not a few foreign visitors still believe that Maori conquered an earlier people who had settled on these islands. The pre-Maori people in question varies: I've heard theories about South American, Celtic, Phoenician, Haida, and Portugese settlers who were rudely disturbed by latecomer Maori. (A variant strain of thinking holds that Maori were the first settlers of these islanders, but that they are not a Polynesian people. A co-worker was solemnly informed that Maori were a Papuan tribe, for instance.)

But by far the most pervasive myth of a pre-Maori people is built around Moriori, the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands. Moriori are descended from a group of Maori who travelled to the Chathams from one of the two main islands of New Zealand in or before the fourteenth century AD. It is likely, but not certain, that the travellers came from the southern part of the South Island. The travellers did not return, probably because the trees on the Chathams could not be made into canoes capable of making long sea journeys. In their centuries of isolation, and in response to the unique conditions on the Chathams, the settlers developed a distinct culture and identity.

Perhaps because of the harsh climate of the Chathams, Moriori did not grow crops. Like the Australian Aborigines, they lived as hunter gatherers. Moriori society was more egalitarian than most Maori societies. Slavery did not exist, and elders wielded less power than most Maori chiefs. Moriori society was also distinguished by its pacifism. Early in Moriori history, an elder named Nunuku-whenua forbade war, and placed strict limits on violence. ‘Nunuku’s law’ ordered that fights between individuals must stop as soon as blood was spilt.

Moriori physical culture was also distinctive. Moriori carving was less ornate than Maori carving. Unlike Maori, though, Moriori made dendroglyphs (carvings on living trees). Moriori often made ingenious uses out of simple materials. For instance, Moriori built wash-through rafts (waka korari) out of seaweed and reeds. The rafts floated partially submerged in water, and this gave them considerable stability in the rough seas around the Chathams.

In 1835 two Taranaki iwi, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama, invaded the Chatham Islands and enslaved the Moriori. By 1862, when slavery was abolished on the Chathams, 1,500 Moriori had died, and only about 100 remained. After they were freed Moriori were unable to recover much of their land, and their population continued to decline. In recent decades, though, there has been a ‘Moriori renaissance’, and in January 2005 the first modern Moriori marae opened on the Chathams.

There is no doubt about the origin of the Moriori. The Moriori and Maori languages both belong to the Eastern Polynesian subfamily of Polynesian languages, but they share many similarities that the other languages in the subfamily do not have. This suggests a shared history. Tools made from obsidian and argillite, materials which were available in the North and South Islands but not in other parts of Polynesian, have been found at Moriori archaeological sites on the Chathams.

Nevertheless, a very powerful myth has developed which says that Moriori were Melanesian pre-Maori settlers of New Zealand, who were conquered and then driven to the remote Chathams by the more 'advanced' and 'aggressive' Polynesians. Even though it has no credibility amongst scholars, the myth of Moriori as a pre-Maori people has persisted in the minds of many Pakeha, and a surprising number of Maori.

Gavin Menzies has plugged in to some of the myths of pre-Maori habitation of these islands in a doomed attempt to make his argument for the Chinese circumnavigation of the world seem more convincing. In 1421 he suggests that many Maori are actually the descendants of members of the Chinese fleet that set out in the fifteenth century and thus, presumably, not really the indigenous people of these islands. That was bad enough, but last year Menzies visited New Zealand to inform us all that 'Maori do not exist'. According to Menzies, Maori are the descendants of Chinese prostitutes and Melanesian slaves. Here's an excerpt from a report on the talk Menzies gave:

Chinese miners were in New Zealand from about 286 BC, he said. They brought concubines from China and on the way to New Zealand picked up Melanesian slaves who revolted, killed the Chinese men and took the women for themselves. This, he said, was the origin of the Maori people.

Menzies said his book had been well-received around the world but had drawn hostile criticism in New Zealand...

Funny that. One person who has responded warmly to Menzies' bizarre reformulations of the Moriori myth is Muriel Newman, former Act party MP and scourge of solo mothers, 'bludging Maoris' and the 'Treaty industry'. In her weekly newsletter Newman regurgitated the musings of Menzies and other pseuds:

Gavin Menzies and his 1421 Team presented new evidence of early Chinese exploration by Zheng He, strengthening their belief that Chinese colonies existed in New Zealand for hundreds of years before the arrival of Maori...

Claims have been made that New Zealand was discovered from as early as 600BC by Phoenician, Indian, Greek and Arab explorers. In fact, claims of these visits help to explain the existence in the South Island of the fossilised remains of rats that have been carbon dated at 160 BC - more than 1,000 years before Maori!

Well, only if you can explain what the Polynesian rat was doing in Greece or Phoenicia, Muriel. The real reason for the enthusiasm Newman and other right-wingers show for the pseudo-histories of Menzies and others is easy to understand. Many Pakeha want to believe that Maori took New Zealand from the Moriori, or from some other people, or that Maori are some kind of historical freak, because that would, according to the Darwinian logic of the right, somehow make the subsequent Pakeha colonisation of Maori more justifiable. 'We only did to you what you did to the poor old Morioris, mate'... What mystifies me is why the Women's Bookshop, which has always been associated, in my deluded mind at least, with the warm fuzzy liberal left, would want to go out on a limb and promote a load of racist baloney like Menzies' book. I can understand the free speech, 'fair's fair, let him have his say argument' for stocking 1421 , but to call it 'a classic' that 'rewrites history' goes above and beyond the call of liberal pluralism, surely?

Pseudo-historians like Menzies like to apologise for their stupidity by claiming that they represent some heroic intellectual 'alternative' which a hegemonic scholarly 'establishment' wants to gag. The truth is that history, like most fields of scholarship, is a nest of infighting between rival schools and theories. Every year in this country, dozens of interesting, innovative and carefully researched histories are published; it's a pity that so few of them attract the hype or readership of 1421. If anyone has been dissuaded from reading 1421 by this post, but still wants to connect this part of the world with China, then they ought to check out Jade Taniwha, Jenny Bol Lee's just-released study of the 'Maori Chinese' culture that has developed in New Zealand over the last eighty years or so. Real history is always better than the counterfeit stuff.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Past Matiere

Exploring New Zealand's landscapes and history

'Death to nationalism!' (except when we're playing the Aussies or Poms?)

A backhanded apologist for Aussie cricketing imperialism named Marcus (just kidding, Marcus) has written a lengthy rebuttal of my last post. Unlike me, Marcus actually tries to bring some political analysis to bear on the crisis that has engulfed the cricketing world over the last week.

Marcus' complaint about the economic and administrative power which India is beginning to wield over the rest of the cricketing world, by dint of the huge TV revenues it commands, has been made by a number of pundits in the mainstream media. While I understand the corrosive effect that unscrupulous Indian capitalists can have on the game - the apparent defection of New Zealand's Shane Bond to an Indian cricket competition may well be a case in point - I can't help finding some of the complaints about Indian power a bit rich.

For decades, India and other Third World cricketing nations have bled their best players to England, and to a lesser extent Australia. (Rugby fans in the Pacific Islands will recognise what I'm talking about, here.) After the English domestic competition allowed the virtually indiscriminate 'importing' of foreign players in the late '60s, country sides filled up with famous players from India, Pakistan, and the West Indies. Warwickshire, for instance, became known as Westindieshire, after it signed up half a dozen top Windies players who couldn't make a living in their own cash-starved domestic competition. In some cases, county sides would make it difficult for foreign players to turn out for their national teams. Even New Zealand lost one of its best batsmen for a time in the 1970s, when Glenn Turner felt unable to reconcile his contract with Worcestershire with his desire to play for a pittance for the Kiwi test team.

For decades, England, Australia, and to a lesser extent New Zealand used their financial advantages over the Third World nations to bully the latter into accepting inconvenient tour itineraries. A culture of Anglophilia and a sort of casual, half-conscious racism came to pervade the way the wealthier countries did their cricketing business. This culture was so pervasive that it was in many cases assimilated by the poorer countries. The West Indies became a test-playing nation in the 1920s, but they did not get a black captain until Frank Worrell took the job in the '50s, because even some black administrators believed only expat Britons or their descendants were up to the job.

I'm not too upset, then, if the pendulum of world cricket starts to swing in the direction of India, which has hitherto been, in economic and administrative terms, a poor relation of the English and Australians. Perhaps the changes in world cricket will come to be seen as symbolic of a wider shift, as formerly despised and impoverished countries like India and China begin to compete seriously with the imperialist heartlands of America and Europe in the twenty-first century global economy. That's not exactly the scenario I'd like to see, of course - I'm more or less on board with Marcus' slogan of 'death to nationalism' - but I can't get too upset when fat cats in the First World bleat about other cats getting fatter in the developing world.

Here's Marcus' two cents' worth:

Maps, this really does smell of Kiwi nationalism.

Nonetheless the reaction of the Australians at the end of the Test was odious. And like a fish, the Australians rot from the head down. The defining moment of the Test for me was on day one (I was at the SCG) when Ponting was given out LBW. He glowered at the umpire, stormed off and threw his bat in the dressing room.

Yes, he'd an inside edge on to his pads, but he was quite happy to stand there like a chump when he nicked it to Dhoni - I heard it in bay 28.

But Yuvraj was just as bad, if not worse, on day two when he stood like a statue for seconds (seemed a week) when he nicked it off Brett Lee. How on Earth was he cleared of dissent? Shocked?! Really?! Maybe he does believe he is infallible. (He was rubbish through out the series and will be dropped, thank goodness. Bring back Karthik!)

The match referee should have taken Ponting aside and either charged him with dissent for bringing the game into disrepute or threatened to unless his team sorted it out.

Likewise, he should have hauled Yuvraj over coals and blasted Kumble.

But the malaise is much deeper. I say a pox on both their houses. (Although I was hoping for an India win, or draw at least by the end of the Test.)

The man-gods of Indian cricket or the craven boofheads of Australian cricket are creatures of a system. The reality is that money talks in sport and India controls 70 per cent of revenues. Look at how the ICC has reacted - dumping Bucknor. Sure, he had a shocker, but he's a great umpire and a great ambassador for cricket. But India bullied him out. And allowing Harbajhan to appeal...and that appeal to appear before a Kiwi judge...that'll be interesting.

Of course the appeal won't take place 'til after the test series, so it's effectively overturning Proctor's decision. He will play in Perth.

Cricket Australia is now in a situation where it has to dance to the BCCI's tune and it doesn't like it. Traditionally an Australian Test series wraps up in Sydney - but this didn't suit the Indians, so it was Test two.

This simmering tension between the BCCI and CA alongside the god-like status awarded to the cricketers (particularly in India) means things spiralled. The failure of India to stamp out racist chants against Symonds in India didn't help.

Indians can't be racists Maps? Hmmmm didn't you see this?

I like the way Harbajhan takes it up to the Australians. But you'd have to be an idiot not to know calling somone a 'monkey' is out of order.

Likewise, the Australians fucked it up. They should have sorted it out on the field or with a morning cuppa. The Australia side lost a lot of support in Australia through this. The biggest sledging slide in the world has a whinge cause someone doesn't play fair? Boo-fucking-hoo.

Fifty-five per cent of people supported Peter Roebuck's call for Ponting to be sacked as captain. A large majority thought Australia was odious. It really wasn't cricket.

We want good cricket, not idiotic nationalism (including from you Maps). But with so much money riding on the game, it's hard to blame people who are so narrowly focused on a sport for acting the way they do. Under capitalism, sports men and women (mainly men) are increasingly a caste away from society, not an integrated expression of human achievement.

In reality these days, I'm not too fussed who wins, though I'll be hoping India does in Perth. But I'm torn. I hope the Australia side picks Shaun Tait and he takes ten-for.

Bring on the cricket. Death to nationalism.

End of cricket rant. (And seriously Maps, get over the under-arm incident - what else can you call it? calamity if you want. But it's long gone.)

Footnote: just for Marcus, here's a clip where the Chappell brothers look back on that fateful day in 1981. Greg Chappell plays his decision to instruct his brother to bowl underarm on an incipient nervous breakdown brought on by overplay, and Piggy Muldoon even pops up at the end:

Friday, January 11, 2008

I'm with India

Kiwi cricket fans should not have any doubt about what attitude to take to the current stoush between the Indian and Aussie sides. After all, we've suffered our share of injustices at the hands of ocker players, umpires, and crowds over the years.

New Zealand was admitted to the select club of test-playing nations in 1930; in
1946, Australia finally deigned to play us, and had the better of a seriously underdone pitch. For the next twenty-eight years they'd put their B teams up against us, even after we started to win the odd victory against the more sporting test-playing nations.

Everybody knows about the 1981 underarm 'incident', as Aussie cricket historians rather delicately call it. Thanks to the wonders of youtube, this moment of infamy can be preserved and communicated to new generations of Kiwi cricket fans, fostering the spirit of resentment that sustains us through loss after loss to Australia:

A few hours after the Chappell brothers attempted to fuse cricket and lawn bowls, vendors on Queen St were doing a roaring business selling T shirts stamped with the immortal slogan 'THE AUSSIES HAVE AN UNDERARM PROBLEM, AND IT STINKS!'

The underarm affair was responsible for Robert Muldoon's single progressive political act: after a few gin and tonics in the Beehive he sent the Aussie Prime Minister a telegram that read 'IT IS APPROPRIATE YOUR PLAYERS DRESS IN YELLOW!' Couldn't have put it better myself, especially considering I was six at the time.

Less well-known, but almost as embittering, are the three test matches that New Zealand has failed to win because of bent umpiring decisions in favour of the Aussies. In 1981, when the Kiwis were close to bowling Australia out and sealing their first test victory in Oz, Lance Cairns had a tailender caught out off a short delivery, only to be told by the umpire that the wicket didn't count, because it was the product of 'dangerous bowling'. Anyone who ever saw 'Monsoon bog' Cairns roll his arm over will know what an absurdity that judgment was. A decade later at the Adelaide Oval, when the Kiwis needed one wicket to clinch a victory, Danny Morrison had Peter Sleep on the back foot plum in front of his stumps. You can guess what the umpire said. A similar scenario unfolded the last time New Zealand had a chance of winning a test in Australia, at Perth back in the early noughties.

The whole cricketing world has been willing India to take it to the hated Aussies this summer. After fluffing the first test in Melbourne, they played magnificently to put Australia on the ropes at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Ricky Ponting's team were only able to prevail by lying about catches and intimidating umpire Steve Bucknor into committing a career-ending series of blunders. To add insult to injury the Aussies, who have perfected the art of verbal abuse in the middle, managed to get an Indian player suspended for three games based on unsubstaniated allegations that he made a racist remark (notorious racists, them Indians). The Aussies would never stoop to such depths, of course - they'll just threaten to rip your throat out. I'm with India, then. Until we play them next time, of course...

Just to stave off accusations of national chauvinism, and to prove that not all Aussies are made of the same stuff as Ricky Ponting, here's a clip of the great Paul Kelly driving a Melbourne cab and crooning his '80s classic 'Before Too Long':

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

'Read a book and resurrect yourself'

This reminds me of some of the stunts that the self-styled 'cultural terrorist' Hamish 'Panama Hat' Dewe used to pull - or talk about pulling.

Comrade Dewe would never diddle a kiddy out of her Xmas present, of course, but 'Read a book and resurrect yourself' is a very Hamish slogan (I suppose the book would have to be one by Ezra Pound or Louis Althusser or some other inscrutable modernist, rather than the latest Harry Potter).

I remember a Hamish plan to scatter thousands of $0 notes - each identical to a $100 note, except that the first two digits had been removed - in Queen St, and also a plot to write a long and rambling letter about being lost at sea on a crumpled, sweaty piece of paper, insert it in an aged bottle, and leave it floating in the swimming pool of the Epsom squire who lived over the fence from our block of flats. 'It's about warping reality', Hamish used to say from under that panama hat, in between sips of Ouzo...

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Cheers Siobhan

It should be no surprise that I disagreed with Linda Herrick about the merits of the 214th - that's right, 214th - issue of Landfall: I'm in the thing, along with a lot of my friends and cronies.

Siobhan Harvey isn't (so far) a friend or crony, simply because I've never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I am very grateful for the warm review she gave me (and Andrew Johnston) in 214. Landfall isn't (mostly) an online publication, so I'm reproducing the review here, with Siobhan's permission (most of the discussion about Johnston's book has been excerpted, but you can read a review of his book here, in The Listener).

If you want a God's eye view of product number 214, then check out this fascinating post by Jack Ross, which includes a sensible and suggestive half-answer to that eternal question 'Where the hell is New Zealand literature going?'

Scott Hamilton, To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps. Auckland: Titus Books, 2007.

Andrew Johnston, Sol. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2007.

For the poet, the credo or doctrine is not the point of arrival but is, on the contrary, the point of departure for the metaphysical journey

wrote Nobel-Prize-winning Russian émigré poet, Joseph Brodsky . An odd choice to introduce a review of the work of two New Zealand poets? Perhaps; perhaps not. Both collections are, in their own ways, about explorations and discoveries which are as much cerebral and metaphysical as geographical and physical. Also, readers will find in these books excursions of the theoretical and improbable, not simply of the tangible and feasible. Mostly, the paths readers are taken along by Hamilton and Johnston have origins that are intriguing and transits that are stimulating; and only rarely (in the case of Hamilton) does the reader consider, in a segue back to Brodsky, the ideologue and poet, there might have been more interaction on a political and/or poetic level.

A short journey takes longer. (p. 25)

Hamilton’s opening line to the succinct poem ‘Ulysses’ exemplifies the ethos behind his first collection. Conundrum, confrontation, deconstruction, axiom: this is a book laden with possibilities, puzzles and the permeations that can result when the potential and the problematic align. So often these matters arise out of an engagement with and alienation from landscape, real but also mythically-charged; the terrain of the resultant debate, one feels, especially New Zealand in source. Take the prose-piece, ‘The Zero’. Here the reader’s taken through a landscape that’s once familiarly Auckland and yet simultaneously subjective, a combination that, come the conclusion, ensures that our view of the recognizable and intimate has become skewed into something at once estranged and anarchic:

he watched the suburbs slide by in their arbitrary order: Manurewa, Papatoetoe, Otahuhu, Mt Wellington, Orakei…. Villas and gardens were greys and greens, and the harbour was grey, or silver, or blue, depending on which way he looked. All that water was the rough pelt of some wild beast (p. 32-33).

The entire transformation hinges upon memory – upon whether what is remembered is truthful or a fabrication atrophying accurate recollection into a kernel of the literal surrounded, conker-like, by a hard shell of whimsical distortion. It’s a battle of logos versus memoria that’s also present in, amongst others,
‘Muriwai 1957’and ‘A Defence of Common Sense’. In the former, an evocation of Kendrick Smithyman’s life is transformed into a meditation upon poetic creativity, the environment turning into a stalking colossus redolent of the writer’s psyche. In ‘A Defence of Common Sense’, meanwhile, a prose list of scientific, philosophical, autobiographical and geographical absolutes conjoins the secretive and speculative:

I know that her hair is brown… I know that all planets follow elliptical orbits… I knowthat most philosophers die in bed… I know that a rock becomes conscious in mid-air (pp. 13-14).

The ‘journey’ is also the same, albeit framed by a different context, in the titular piece and the pensive postmodernist sequence ‘My Experiences in the Maori Wars’. Kicking the collection off, the title piece ruminates upon whether the much heralded 1969 Moon landing is a fable and, thereby, a metaphor for Civilization’s decline:

Perhaps we have never been to the moon. Perhaps we should shut windows and doors, and leave the floor undusted, and sit, silently, on the dirt, reading old newspapers in the dark. Maybe then we’ll forget that we’re at home, and be able to leave at last? (p. 9).

Whilst ‘My Experiences in the Maori Wars’, apart from being indicative of Hamilton’s delight in playing with recall, assumption, locale and history, personal and collective, also epitomizes an authorial interests in dedication – not only ascribing the work to an individual, but also using icons (Te Kooti, Smithyman again) to further poetical exploration of subject matter.

Often, readers may find themselves thinking of the parallels between Hamilton’s book and Chris Price’s recent Brief Lives (AUP, 2006). The subject matter of both works might be distinct, but there’s certainly a commonality in doctrine and investigation. And like Price’s book, Hamilton’s ends with biographical deliberation, matching Else’s reflection upon the life of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam with his own musings upon English Marxist historian, Edward Palmer Thompson. Entitled ‘Ukania: An Academic Adventure’, it’s part drug-induced contemplation, part road-trip diary, and transports the reader from Hong Kong to Worcester and Hull and back to Sandringham. Also charged with academic necessity (study for a PhD) and fraught personal interactions, including a meeting with Thompson’s wife, Dorothy, ‘Ukania’ paints Thompson, most famous for The Making of the English Working Class and The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, as the personification of all the conflicts – beliefs-versus-practice, memory-versus-history, public-versus-private space – that engage Hamilton’s work .

Absent, though, is a wider sense of Thompson’s enduring legacy. In ‘Ukania’, Hamilton rightly notes his subject’s pleas for the protection of civil liberties, but leaves unmentioned that in this he was, Cassandra-like, divining the future. The numerous encroachments upon social freedoms witnessed in the UK since 1979, including (but not limited to) the Thatcher government’s muffling of Sinn Fein and the Blair government’s ‘anti-terrorist’ measures, seem (to this Anglo-Irish émigré reviewer, at least) proof of Thompson’s right-minded predictions. Meanwhile, discussions of Thompson’s deep anti-Stalinism might have been framed in the context of an era of post-Khrushchev Soviet authoritarianism that saw (and here’s the link back to Brodsky) the sort of repression of artistic independence that forced numerous Russian ‘creatives’ into political asylum.

It’s a minor point, for so often in To the Moon, In Seven Easy Steps, Hamilton’s strongest where concision melds language and ideas; in ‘Ukania’, conversely, a little more loquaciousness would have been welcome.

So where does all this journeying lead us? In terms of New Zealand and its literary canon, Hamilton and Johnston offer us welcome tours through places and spaces that align with and expand our literary sensibilities. There's a tangible sense that both collections embrace an international outlook that doesn't compromise local tastes.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Post-Xmas revisionism

Yes, yes, I know that the turkey has been devoured, the last cake is in pieces in the freezer, and the toys have been opened and broken, but it's still worth reading Mike Beggs explain why Santa Claus is not necessarily a capitalist.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Against the notion of a New Year

'My idea of paradise is a perfect automobile travelling over a smooth road at thirty miles an hour to a twelfth century cathedral'
- Henry James

'I would like to write poetry so old-fashioned it seemed radically new'
- Allen Curnow

'I have nothing new to ask of you,
Future, heaven of the poor...

the hands of the clock still enter without knocking'

- WS Merwin

'Old houses were scaffolding once and workmen whistling'
- TE Hulme

'That busy insect
the clock
is eating away my life'

- Charles Reznikoff

'The end of time is continuous'
- Roger Rountree

'Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans'
- John Lennon