Sunday, March 30, 2008

The perils of youtube

During the lonely last leg of a PhD thesis youtube becomes an invaluable friend. Trudging through footnotes and proofing great swathes of text, I've found myself making all sorts of curious bargains with, well, myself. Another ten pages, and you can watch that classic Stone Roses clip again. Another fifty footnotes, and you can search for alternate versions of 'Tangled Up In Blue'. I've become so dependent that even when I'm working on the dirty screen of this faltering laptop I'm often using youtube as a de facto radio. Let's face it, you don't lose too much by not watching Dylan stand on the same spot for seven minutes in a ridiculous hat while he whines his way through an obscure version of his greatest song.

As the hours go on and the footnote count rises, my aesthetic standards tend to crumble, and I succumb to simple nostalgia. Who'll know, at this hour, if I turn the sound down a little and revisit The Beastie Boys doing 'She's On It' in 1986, or that guy with the funny name doing 'Axel F' on the '80s Eddie Murphy film? And what was really so bad about 'Born in the USA', anyway? It sounded good when I was twelve, didn't it? Gaddamit, I've got a right to revisit cheesey '80s music - we're talking about my cultural heritage here!

My big mistake has been to succumb to the desire to revisit another part of my '80s cultural heritage - Arthur C Clarke's Mysterious World. When I was twelve I was transfixed by Clarke's marvellously unexcited investigations into exciting semi-imaginary things like Bigfoot, Nessie, and UFOs.
At two o'clock in the morning, with one hundred and fifty footnotes to go and a supevisor waiting impatiently for that final draft, I was once again transfixed. And you can't listen to stuff like this:

That's 'Patty', the sasquatch a couple of dodgy Yanks caught on film way back in 1967. Clarke made the gal a star of his doco series, and when I was twelve I engaged in passionate arguments about her existence with family and schoolmates. Now I feel strangely ambivalent about the subject. On the one hand, I find the notion that a massive bipedal ape is roaming around North America almost too ridiculous to consider. Where did the critters come from, given that the Americas have no indigenous species of ape? How could they possibly evade capture? Why hasn't some redneck hunter ever ended up with a sasquatch rug on his cabin floor? Isn't it obvious that the 1967 film must be a hoax?

At the risk of inviting ridicule, though, I want to suggest that there are some aspects of the clip of Patty which are quite difficult to explain. Consider the length of Patty's arms relative to the length of her legs. Consider the muscle movement which can be observed in one of her legs:

Consider also the fact that decades of attempts by sceptics to recreate the 'hoax' have yielded embarrassing results. Here's a recent BBC effort:

Alright, I know what you're thinking: why should the BBC be able to do special effects? Haven't decades of Dr Who episodes shown us their limitations? All the same, one would expect the Beeb in the noughties to have a better chance at creating a convincing hoax than a couple of broke good ol' boys in the late '60s.

At this point, I'd like to ask all you highbrow literary types scoffing at the pedantry of cryptozoologists to take a look at this clip of a rare beast of modern American letters being analysed by a truly obsessive fan:

With guys like that on his trail it's no wonder Thomas Pynchon prefers to avoid the limelight. Here's a much better tribute to Pynchon, which puts a series of images from Gravity's Rainbow to the music of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, the world's first psychedelic band. Listen to that electric jug rockin' out behind the young Roky Erikson's spiralling voice:

OK, a couple of footnotes to go...

Friday, March 28, 2008

Expensive lessons

I heard this joke today, in the wake of the latest disasters in Iraq:

Q. What is the definition of 'war'?

A. The means by which Americans learn about geography.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Listening to the end of the world

In a corner of the immense forest that is The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson introduces his readers to Richard Brothers, one of the self-appointed prophets who fused an immoderate enthusiasm for the Bible with a hatred of King and Church in late eighteenth-century Blighty. Brothers' favourite part of the Bible was the Book of Revelations, and he once used the tortured poetry of St John of Patmos to 'prove' that the world would end on a particular day in the 1790s.

Luckily for Brothers' street cred in the poor and radicalised quarters of London, the day in question saw a vast storm descend on the city. As lightning lit up dark thunderclouds and the miserable streets of the East End turned to mud, a prominent member of the Church of England was forced to duck into a disreputable pub on his way home from work. Inside the doors of the seedy establishment, the reverend in question was amazed to discover a big crowd of plebs drinking cheap stout and counting down the end of the world.

If I have to be in a bar when the apocalypse comes - and, let's face it, there would be worse places to be during the apocalypse than a bar - then I want the music of Scalper playing on the jukebox. Nobody else would sound right. A former member of the controversial British hip hop crew Fun Da Mental, Scalper recently swapped the traffic of London for the broken-backed waves and soggy forests of West Auckland. Although he rejects the strident Islamism that has made Fun Da Mental (in)famous in Britain, Scalper writes songs which often draw upon the experience of living in an Islamophobic world in the era of 9/11, 7/7, and Bush's War of Terror. Scalper made a sort of comeback to the stage a couple of weeks ago in Ponsonby's PR Bar, at a gig sown together by Powertool Records boss Andrew 'love machine' Maitai. Scalper's music would make the most ferocious thunderstorm sound like the purring of a pussycat. Backed by dirty, weirdly syncopated beats and the tight, angular guitar work of his sidekick Roger Atmore, Scalper barks, mutters, chants, and whispers about
chemical warfare, mad mullahs, imperialism, and brawling angels. While those beats bounce about, Roger's guitar hisses and moans, and his lyrics sketch a very twenty-first century dystopia, Scalper jerks and snaps his way across the stage like an unmedicated epileptic or a malfunctioning robot.
Even free noise fanatic Muzzlehatch, who thinks that hip hop began with Vanilla Ice and ended with Double J and Twice the T, announced himself mighty impressed by the Scalper phenomenon. That bloke in the chicken suit knew he'd have to lift his game, too. See you at Scalper's next gig, if the world doesn't end in the meantime.

Friday, March 21, 2008


After the stately but slightly over-serious Hamilton era, the long-running Kiwi literary journal brief has come alive under the streetwise editorship of Muzzlehatch. After devoting his first issue to giant worms and the New World Order, Muzzlehatch has hauled Kiwi rock legend Bill Direen on board and given issue #36 a musical theme. One of the goodies in the forthcoming issue is a profile of the early, avant-punk career of Richard von Sturmer. These days Richard is the supernaturally calm boss of Auckland's Zen Centre, but back in the late '70s he was the wild man behind The Plague, the demented mixture of amateur theatrics, first-wave punk, and political demagoguery which stalked the smaller town halls of Blighty and Aotearoa. Check out this wiki entry for a history of The Plague and a very disturbing photo of the young Richard.

In his punk period von Sturmer also found the time to co-write several songs with Don McGlashlan, including that famous anti-anthem of the Muldoon era 'There Is No Depression in New Zealand'. I'm not sure if it counts as a compliment, but I recall that Metiria Turei translated the lyrics of the song into Maori and sung them to a bemused public gallery before beginning her maiden parliamentary speech.

With his usual generosity, Richard has lent Muzzlehatch some of the posters his Plague cronies painted and pasted in the punk era. I'm hoping the little beauties will turn up in brief.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Thesis progress update

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Education and emancipation

I recently interviewed Mohsen al Attar - a new lecturer at the University of Auckland Faculty of Law. You can read my interview here
Mohsen has also just written an opinion piece, an edited version of which was published in the New Zealand Herald and is reproduced below:

Mohsen al Attar: Muslims struggle to find sense of belonging

5:00AM Friday March 14, 2008
By Mohsen al Attar

Migrant Muslim communities in Western nations such as New Zealand and Australia are facing a psychological and spiritual crisis.

Post-September 11, Bali and London events and actions by Western governments, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, have produced widespread suspicion, detention and deportation of Muslim migrants and nationals.

And the highly xenophobic and hateful rhetoric of media pundits and politicians has produced a climate in which many Muslims feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in their homes.

But this is only half the story. We cannot disregard the fierce and hateful narrative of many Muslim fundamentalist groups - Islamists as they are termed by the West.

These groups adopt an absolutist stance on religious form and duty that sandwiches Muslims between support for the violent and morally schizophrenic tactics of the movement and opposition to these tactics, often leading to accusations (and sometimes feelings) of betrayal to Islam.

Many Western racists have exploited this double bind by questioning the loyalties of Kiwi-Muslims, Australian-Muslims, British-Muslims and, of course, American-Muslims.

Likewise, many Muslim fundamentalist groups have capitalised on Western bigotry to advance their personal clash of civilisation thesis by highlighting how quickly Muslims have been reduced to second-class citizens - not unlike what was done to Japanese migrants and citizens in Canada, America, and even New Zealand during World War II.

Dual subjection to Islamophobia from the West on one side and reactionary currents within the Muslim community on the other has produced a situation in which many Muslims have lost a sense of who they are.

Feelings of belonging to a nation have been replaced by feelings of fear and paranoia, causing many to withdraw into themselves and self-segregate within their communities.

Lack of knowledge of the self inevitably produces a loss of confidence, a common feature of many Muslim communities today which, quite naturally, stimulates a powerful desire for physical and moral security.

For some, this security is found in religious norms and, ominously, in the strict adherence thereto. Blind adherence to norms is detrimental to a community because it forces its members to overlook the meanings underpinning the norms and the spiritual foundation that informs the entire belief structure.

Contrary to many fundamentalist and Western representations, Islam is not a religion of rules but a religion of reason. Multiple passages in the Koran and historical anecdotes derived from the prophetic traditions (eg "Use your brain about matters that perplex you" and "Wisdom is the last bastion of the Muslim") illustrate the depth to which reason and critique have traditionally been revered in Muslim societies. Regrettably, the same cannot be said about many contemporary Muslim currents.

Oxford professor and Islamic theologian Tariq Ramadan had just been in New Zealand as a guest of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of Ethnic Affairs. His visit was an opportunity for New Zealanders of all ethnic affiliations to acquire a better understanding of some of the opportunities and challenges that Muslim migration presents for New Zealand.

Professor Ramadan met MPs, academia and the media, and gave several public talks to New Zealanders of Maori, Pakeha and Muslim descent. His message was one of reconciliation.

Migration can produce dislocations on physical, cultural and spiritual levels. For migrants, an underlying feeling of alienation almost perpetually lurks in the shadows as they try to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of the unknown in their new home, while longing for the comfort of familiarity.

There is little in Kiwi society that prevents Muslim or other migrants from remaining true to their faith while integrating and gradually contributing as citizens of their new nation.

For instance, as many Western states became venomously suspicious of their Muslim communities post-September 11, New Zealanders re-elected Dr Ashraf Choudhary to Parliament, demonstrating New Zealand can be a welcoming place even to those who do not fit the mould of Kiwiana.

Reconciliation must thus happen on both an individual and communal level as Muslim migrants attune their spiritual preferences with their physical location.

Reconciliation must also happen on a national level. Muslim migration to New Zealand has a long history.

From Chinese Muslim miners in the late 19th century, to tradespeople of Gujarat at the turn of the 20th century, to Fiji-Indian workers in the 1950s, to Malaysian and Indonesian professionals in the 1980s, to refugees from Kosovo, Iraq and Somalia today, there is a strong Muslim presence in New Zealand totalling, by some estimates, nearly 50,000.

Despite their long history of peaceful participation in Kiwi society, the posturing of anti-Islamic reactionaries and the ad hominem persecution of Ahmed Zaoui have had an impact.

And New Zealand's continued participation in Afghanistan despite a large number of civilian casualties has not gone unnoticed in Muslim communities.

If we are to manage the shifts that increased migration produces and counter the feelings of alienation that Islamophobia and fundamentalism inflame, we must adopt a proactive stance as opposed to a passive one; to transcend mutual suspicion and embrace mutual trust.

This was the essence of Professor Ramadan's timely message to New Zealand and the world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A little on the tall side

There has been an interesting discussion underneath my post on Robert Ford. Today Spanish Civil War researcher Mark Derby sent me this photo, which I think confirms my hypothesis that Ford was a little on the tall side. The photo was taken sometime in the 1950s, the decade when Ford and his wife Augusta emigrated to New Zealand to escape McCarthyism.

Mark also sent me a document made up of cut and pasted bits of interviews with an old friend of the Fords. Here are some excerpts:

Bob and Augusta came to NZ in early 1950s. Augusta taught English at Takapuna Grammar, Bob was a lathe operator for some firm that made brass plumbing fittings.

I believe one incident that precipitated their comming to New Zealand was the killing of a pet cat, but I think McCarthyism had a lot to do with it...

I would say they were very left wing. I doubt they were communists but given the political climate in USA at the time some people may have thought they were. I do not think they were politically active in the sense of belonging to or working for any political organisation. They were very interested in politics and civil rights in particular and their friends would have no doubt where their sympathies lay. Like my father enlisting in 1939 I believe Bob's involvment in the International Brigade would have been a deep seated abhorance to fascism.

Bob had told us stories of his time as an Military Policeman in World War Two I do not think these went down that well with my father who did not have a great admiration for the American army or their military police...because of his height he look huge in a military great coat and combined with his very deep voice he seemed to be menacing to any trouble makers and so never had any trouble.

One of the things that first drew the Fords to us was the number of books in our house. Our parents became good friends and we visited them regularly long after we left Auckland...

Bob was a nephew of the film director John Ford and had in a few small parts in a few of his films, my mother had actually seen one of them, but I do not know what one.

Augusta spent most of her working life here teaching English at Auckland teachers training college, Bob stayed with the same firm. I asked him once how he came to be a lathe worker, he told me after the war the army gave him an aptitude test and told him that is what they recommended so that is what he did. It must have been agony for him, he was very tall and most of the machines here English and built for a population the was much shorter than him.

Bob was a great talker and widely read. He was keen on his jazz too and this became all the more important to him as he became quite blind. I built him an amplifier and speakers and sorted out a deck and earphones when his old gear packed up...

One Summer I did a lot of work in their garden which had got away from them. They paid and fed me well (both of which I needed) that and helping some old friends and haveing an excuse to spend some time with them very good for my sence of well being. The only mistake they made was insisting on giving me a large tumbler of strong Spanish red wine with my lunch every time, the weeds suffered very little on those afternoons...

When we were helping them move, Bob produced a small revolver. It was from his days in the Spanish Civil War - I was gobsmacked. I may have known that he was involved but can really remember nothing of this (my brother claimed he saw a copy of Bob's pasport in the Auckland Museum in connection with the Spanish Civil war) I did not realise what he was doing and reacted too late, he went out to the back of the section and flung it into the forest of toitoi there. I was there too late to see where it landed, I spent hours looking for it with no success, I thought it should be in a museum.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Preceded by his work?

The New York Times is running an obituary for Alain Robbe-Grillet which has makes me feel momentarily guilty for giving up so easily on the dour old bugger's novels. The Times reminds us of how innovative Grillet's approach to fiction - if that's the right word to use - seemed in the 1950s:

Mr. Robbe-Grillet and the other so-called New Novelists, including Michel Butor, Nathalie Sarraute and Claude Simon, wanted to do in literature what others had done in art — just as Marcel Duchamp had deconstructed human motion in “Nude Descending a Staircase” and the Abstract Expressionists had valorized gesture, the movement of a brush stroke itself, over representation. Mr. Robbe-Grillet believed that writing should reveal the archaeology of its own construction, should depict a mind unfolding its thoughts over time.

His first novel, “The Erasers,” is an inverted detective story, while “Jealousy,” set on a Caribbean banana plantation, reads at turns like scientific observation and stage directions. (“The moment has come to inquire after Christine’s health. Franck replies by a gesture of the hand: a rise followed by a slower fall that becomes quite vague.”) The effect “was for many people sterile, for others exciting,” said Tom Bishop, a friend of the author’s and a French professor at New York University, where Mr. Robbe-Grillet taught every other year for 25 years. “He put the reader in a position where he had to be the central part of the novel.”

It all seems so clever, doesn't it? And yet even some of the admirers quoted by the Times don't seem too keen on actually rereading the novels the man churned out. I do have a fond spot for Robbe-Grillet's comrade Michael Butor's demented Letters from the Antipodes, which I found in the 'Aussie Travel Guide' section of a ruinous Sydney bookshop a decade ago. Butor's tome records a trip to Australia back in the '70s by randomly quoting texts the 'author' came across. Menus, tour guides, surveys of archaeological sites in the Outback, breeding tips for Kangaroo owners - all of them go into Butor's stew. I haven't actually read it from cover to cover, of course. Did anyone?

The 'nouveau roman' project to which Butor and Robbe-Grillet belonged reminds me of the movement of 'Language poets' which caused a stir on the American literary scene in the '80s and '90s. Influenced by the Frankfurt School interpretation of of Marx, by post-structuralist philosophy, and by the minimalist classical music of Steve Reich and others, Language poets and political activists like Ron Silliman and Bruce Andrews tried to produce deliberately fragmented texts which the reader had to 'complete'. By 'empowering' the reader, they aimed to defeat the capitalist commodification of meaning and the supposed recuperation of most forms of avant-garde art by the 'system'. In a series of astonishingly dogmatic 1980s essays, Silliman virtually outlawed every alternative form of writing; even supposedly cool writers like Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon were simply 'stylising their acquiescence' in the outmoded games of narrative and author-constructed meaning. (In other words, they were like, you know, fun to read.)

It seems to me that both the nouveau roman novelists and the Language poets fell victim to two very common fallacies of the literary avant-garde. They assumed that to be innovative a work of art must possess a certain, narrowly defined form, and they attempted to adapt the forms that had enriched another artform into literature, without asking what would get lost in the transition.

The programmatic insistence on a narrowly defined form - Robbe-Grillet's 'new novel', or Silliman's 'new sentence' - inevitably lowered the horizons of the members of the schools, and pre-empted inspiration and experiment. And the forms in question arguably weren't worth bringing into literature in the first place. The methods which make Reich at his best an exciting composer of music, for instance, simply can't be adapted to literature. Reich's practice of repeating a few notes over and over, before ringing a minor change, can produce radically accessible yet wonderfully enigmatic music, but if transferred to the page it produces page upon page of unspeakably dull poetry.

Even the most ruthless avant-garde has a boredom threashold, and today both the nouveau roman and Language poety belong to literary history. The Times' tribute to Robbe-Grillet has an antiquarian feel, and even Silliman appears to have belatedly embraced a less fundamentalist approach to writing.

If any young genius reading this post is casting around for a new avant-garde idea, then I want to point them in the direction of the thoroughly uncool Allen Curnow, who said that he wanted to write poetry that was so old-fashioned it seemed radically new.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Jaw storage?

I've been obsessing about this photo, which Skyler took during our recent visit to Pureora Forest Park. We found the sturdy wooden container, which has a hinged lid, close to the Department of Conservation headquarters in the north of the park. Am I just showing my towny ignorance by puzzling over the function of the object? Does somebody at Pureora really collect deer jaws? What for? Is this an image out of a Richard Taylor poem, mysteriously inserted into the real world? Answers, please...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Barack and Leszek

This blog has made a belated and rather oblique entry into the discourse surrounding the US Democratic Party primaries, thanks to Canadian academic and political commentator Will Roberts, who is querying the ability of conservative pundit John Derbyshire to call Barack Obama close-minded. Derbyshire recently made Obama an offer he can probably afford to refuse:

Modern American conservatism is a huge and various body of thought, with many mansions. Has Obama explored it? I'll lend him my Nash if he wants to make a start. Heck, I have read Kolakowski all the way through, all three volumes; has Obama read Hayek? Buckley? Kirk?

But is Derbyshire such a good sport? Was he really wading masochistically through a foul swamp of lefty agitprop when he read Leszek Kolakowski's three-volume Main Currents of Marxism? Roberts rightly rubbishes the claim that the Polish philosopher is some kind of lefty:

Kolakowski was an ideological anti-Marxist, and Main Currents is a faux-intellectual hatchet-job. An anti-Marxist who reads Kolakowski will find all of their prejudices bolstered, and that's about of the fundamental and unquestioned premises of Kolakowski's whole approach is that there is an essential Marxism underlying everything in the Marxist tradition, and that the main currents of Marxism are all corrupted indifferently by this essential character. This thesis is not demonstrated, but presupposed. To say that such a presupposition "refutes" anything is to mistake a catechism for an argument.

Kolakowski doesn't read the texts of the Marxist tradition; he uses them as screens onto which he projects his catechism. There is nothing honest about Main Currents except the author's open avowal of his antipathy to Marxism.

Roberts supports his case by quoting a post I made back in 2006 on Kolakowski's dust-up with his sometime buddy EP Thompson.

That post was based on some of my PhD research, and I don't feel any need to modify the very negative view it took of Kolakowski. I don't think there's much point in studying any thinker if you're not prepared to make an effort to enjoy them, and in the course of my PhD research I've fallen in and out of love with some rather unlikely characters. Kolakowski, though, has completely failed to move me, and not only because he's easily the ugliest philosopher since Socrates. I think Will is on the money when he describes Kolakowski as a deeply dogmatic philosopher less interested in exploring ideas than enacting catechisms.

I'm not only whingeing at old Leszek for the way he's treated the Marxist tradition(s) in his academic writing over the past thirty years. Back in the '50s, when he was a keen young Stalinist in his native Poland, he used to inveigh against the Catholic intellectual tradition using exactly the same method. In his early and later writings, Kolakowski's method is simultaneously scholastic and vulgarly reductive. I can't think of a less fruitful approach to intellectual history.

Kolakowski's thinking is scholastic, because he understands the history of ideas, and complex intellectual traditions like Marxism, as nothing more than the history of texts, rather than as a something with a sociological, real-world dimension. The complex process by which even the most highfalutin' ideas are interpreted, amended, and distorted in the grimy world of politics is lost on Kolakowski, who seems to think that the practice of Stalin or Mao was a simple enactment of orders Marx wrote a century earlier.

And Kolakowski's approach is reductionist, because he does not consult texts in a fair-minded and systematic manner. Instead of ploughing through the voluminous writings of Marx or Gramsci or Luxembourg, Kolakowski seizes on a handful of phrases, often taken out of context, and diagnoses his subject on the basis of a cursory inspection of these specimens.

It is interesting to compare Kolakowski to Louis Althusser, another scholar who often succumbed to scholasticism. Like Kolakowski, Althusser tended to see the Marxist tradition as a succession of yellowing texts. Unlike Kolakowski, though, Althusser was an obsessive reader, who became obsessed with the complexity and disunity of the ideas of Marx and the other great thinkers whose Collected Works he trawled. Althusser may have ended up going mad, but his recognition of the complexity and contradiction which must lie at the heart of any robust intellectual tradition makes him a saner guide to the Marxist tradition than comrade Kolakowski. Of course, you could always ignore them both and employ me as your cut-price guide instead.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Postcards from the front

A couple of weeks ago I got an interesting e mail from Wellington-based historian Mark Derby. Derby's two great research passions are New Zealand and labour movement history. He earns a crust for the Waitangi Tribunal translating old Maori documents, and devotes large chunks of his leisure time to research projects on the history of the workers' movement and the left. Mark's e mail was related to one of these projects:

Hi Scott

Work on my book on NZ's response to the Spanish Civil War is progressing well and we're still on track for publication late this year. But I haven't managed to get anyone in Auckland to check out and perhaps copy or take notes from Bob Ford's postcards from the frontlines of the civil war, held in the Auckland Museum's manuscript collection.

I have, however, managed to contact various surviving friends of Bob Ford and his wife, who came to live here during the McCarthy era. One guy recalls Ford sorting through his possessions, coming across an old revolver from the civil war, and hurling it away over the back fence. My informant says he later searched long and hard, but unsuccessfully, for this remarkable souvenir of the conflict.

Are you able to check out these postcards for me? At least it would provide a fascinating post for your website, and some good images. (Ford's ID cards and other civil war militaria are among the museum's collection. Plus he was a nephew of the great film-maker John Ford - Stagecoach etc - and took small parts in a number of his uncle's films. He was apparently very tall and good-looking, and might even be identifiable in DVD versions.)

Mark got in touch with me for the first time after I published an issue of the literary journal brief that included a long-lost short story by the Spanish Civil War veteran Greville Texidor. I'm keen to speed up the publication of what promises to be a fascinating book, so I called the Robert Ford documents up from the depths of the museum library’s archive last week. Inside the large wide folder handed to me by a solemn archivist I found the identity card and service booklet the Republican government issued Ford in 1937, a 'Canard de Honor' booklet the same government awarded him in 1938, and twenty-one postcards he sent home to America in 1937 and 1938.

Opening the folder in which the documents were stowed, I was reminded of a scene early in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, where the daughter of a veteran of the International Brigades opens a suitcase full of artefacts which have not been touched for many decades, and is suddenly thrown from '90s England into the tumultuous Spain of the ‘30s. The black and white mug shot on Ford’s identity card, the unsteady lines of his handwriting, and the faded urgent slogans of the posters reproduced on his postcards all suddenly brought his world to life. Auckland's museum is famous for the carved and painted taonga on display in its Maori Court and Pacific galleries, but many people forget that our library archive contains equally remarkable treasures.

Ford’s identity card states that he fought with the 2c Section of the Mooney Battalion of the American Company of the International Brigades. His identification number is 38758, and his enlistment date is the 18th of March 1937. His address is given as 6860 Odin Ave, Los Angeles, his unmarried status is noted, his birth date is given as 12-1-1910, his occupation is listed as cinema worker (in one of his uncle’s films?), and his organisation is given as ‘PC Anti-fascista Americano’, with ‘PC’ presumably meaning the Communist Party of the USA.

There are some interesting variations between the identity card and the service booklet. In the booklet, Ford is listed simply as a member of the ‘Brigadas Internationales’. His place of birth is listed as New York, his place of residence is Los Angeles, his profession is ‘Artista’, and his ‘Partido Politico’ is simply ‘Antifascista’. The date of Ford’s enlistment in the Brigades is given as the fifth of May, 1937, and the date of his discharge is the twenty-second of October 1938.

The same curious photo of Ford appears on both the identity card and the service booklet. Ford is hunched forward and looking downwards, with a dazed expression on his face. He has a long, angular face and a full head of hair. The white folder held a ‘Canard de Honor’ that appears to have been given to all the International Brigaders when they left behind a forlorn Republican Spain at the end of 1938 (perhaps the Republican government was too poor to mint medals, by then?).
Some of the twenty-one postcards appear to have been sent home on their own; others were clearly inserted along with letters which do not appear in Ford’s file. This makes establishing their chronology unexpectedly difficult. In some cases, individual postcards are dated and feature messages with clearly marked beginnings and endings. In other cases, though, they feature miscellaneous jottings, or what appears to be the overspill of a letter or a postcard which does not appear in Ford’s file. There are several ‘serial messages’, written over several cards. Whenever the recipients of a card are identified, they are named as ‘Bill and Nana’. Occasionally Ford asks after other family members, especially his ‘old man’.

The fronts of the postcards are all based on propaganda posters produced by the Republican government. The style of the images is various – colourful, simplified paintings, black and white cartoon caricatures, and historical paintings of the Spanish resistance to Napoleon are all reproduced alongside Republican slogans. Some of the images are famous - the ‘Los Nacionals’ painting of Franco and his henchmen in an uncomfortably small boat, for example. Ford clearly had an intense interest in the images on the postcards. He often interprets them to his readers, and several times talks about wanting to see them preserved for the future.

It was not possible for me to construct anything like a narrative of Ford’s experiences in Spain from the postcards. The ‘story’ they tell is discontinuous, and dwells more on the exigencies of the weather, the slowness of the mail, shortages of cigarettes, and other petty miseries of a soldier’s life than on the great events that were taking place in Spain in 1937 and 1938. The mail of the International Brigaders was of course subject to censorship, and Ford at times hints broadly that there are many things he cannot talk about. Ford appears to have been based in or near Madrid, but there is no clue in the cards themselves as to what role he played in the epic defence of the city in 1937-38. He does describe a bombardment which landed on Madrid in one card, but this occurred when he was off-duty.

We do get some fascinating glimpses of Ford the man, even if we don’t learn much about Ford the soldier. In a letter written on February the 4th, 1938, he tells us that Madrid is a ‘small town’ but that he likes it very much. There is one problem, though:

The Spaniards will never get used to my size. They turn around in the street and stare at me. But what can I expect [sic].

Putting this remark together with Ford’s very odd pose in the photo on his identity card, I can’t help but feel that he was abnormally tall, and rather sensitive about it. If Ford appeared as an extra in some of his Uncle’s famous films, then it might not be too difficult to pick him out!

Ford appears to have begun a serious relationship in Spain: in one of the postcards he responds to questions about when he will return from the country by saying that, even if the war were not a factor, he would not return for some time ‘for personal reasons’. His view of Spanish society appears to have been positive – ‘the Spanish are a swell people, and once we have finished with the fascists it will be one of the best countries in the world’ he says in one card.

Ford’s spelling is very bad, his language is informal, and his sentences are often ungrammatical. He uses colloquialisms like ‘swell’, often begins his sentences with conjunctions, and almost never uses abstract nouns. He doesn’t, in short, write like an intellectual (some would say this is no bad thing, of course!). Ford clearly does have a strong interest in visual art, but his interpretations of the postcards he sends are not especially sophisticated. There are no allusions to either the modernist painters who influenced the new propaganda art or the Old Masters like Goya who painted some of the classic images on the postcards.

What can we say about Ford’s politics? In a letter of March the 4th, he talks about the visit of Paul Robeson to Spain, and laments the fact that he did not get to see the great singer performing for Republican troops. Ford goes on to praise Robeson:

I am glad that he came to Spain. I believe that he is a communist, and if that is true it is a good thing. We need men like him in the revolutionary movement, as he is both popular and intelligent. In another letter home, Ford asks about a family member or acquaintance, whose name is unfortunately not legible:

Are the folks still Maine? If J[ ? ] is back what is her latest ideas [sic] on Spain? Does she still think we are a gang of priest killers? I don’t think there is much use in talking to people like her. She has a lot of funny ideas that she’ll never get rid of.

Ford was clearly a courageous and deeply committed man, but I’m not sure if we can say he was especially politically sophisticated. Several times he tells ‘Nana’ and ‘Bill’ that he doesn’t need to inform them about general events in Spain, because they can read ‘the papers’ in America. We know, of course, that media coverage of the war in Spain was intensely political, and papers often neglected to cover important events because of their ideological positions. Ford’s advice seems, then, a little naïve. I don’t think that a very ‘ideological’ Communist would have such a sanguine attitude towards the ‘bourgeois’ media!

But I don’t think that the fact that Ford wasn’t a great writer or political theorist makes his postcards uninteresting. The fact that he wasn’t a Hemingway or a George Orwell perhaps means that his observations are more in tune with the viewpoints of the International Brigades rank and file. And I think Ford's interpretations of the meaning of the images on the postcards he sent home are important because of their contemporaneity. They aren’t the much-removed analyses which some PhD student cooks up in a research library – they are the thoughts of a man in the thick of the action. They show us the ideas that a young American was prepared to cross the world, fight, and potentially die for seventy years ago. That's why I've been happy to transcribe Ford's messages and send them on to Mark Derby. A historian who is immersed in his subject is often able to see the significance of even a trivial observation or quirk of expression, and to construct a narrative where others see only a confusion of random details. After decades in storage, Mark Ford's passionate and enigmatic postcards from the front deserve to be read again.

There's no denying, either, the widespread fascination that the Spanish Civil War continues to arouse amongst people who know the conflict only through books and films. After I came downstairs from the library archives I got into a conversation with a Basque couple who had decided to sneak in a visit to the museum before the end of their holiday in New Zealand. They had been fascinated to discover a place called Basque Park near the centre of Auckland, and wanted to know about the origins of the name; rather than fall into an embarrassed silence, I started raving on about Robert Ford's postcards. I told them about one card in particular, which showed the Republican flag overlaid with the banners of the Catalan anarchists and the Basque Country, in a display of anti-fascist unity.

I told the Basques how I'd momentarily mistaken their flag for a Union Jack, before remembering that their country had been a key part of the struggle against Franco and fascism. The Basques were amazed to learn that a museum in New Zealand held such a rare image, and even more amazed and impressed to learn about the young Kiwi men and women who defied their own government to travel across the world to fight fascism in Spain in the 1930s. Fortunately for me the visitors forgot all about the puzzle of Basque Park, pulled out a little video camera, and insisted I repeat the story of Robert Ford and the Kiwi connection with Spain's war on film.