Wednesday, April 30, 2008

You tell 'em, m'lad

Skyler recently posted her debut review, so I thought I'd dig up one of my first serious appraisals of a book. It was pounded into a typewriter at my parents' house and posted to the young Jack Ross, who was reviews editor for the mysterious Auckland arts publication called The Pander a decade or more ago. (Wasn't I a pompous young man? Some things don't change...)

Jack had a policy of witholding the names of his reviewers, so CK Stead was never able to come after me and scalp me, nor even write a nasty piece of doggerel in my honour. I hope the old bugger's past it now.

Note: for some mysterious reason Blogger can't seem to reproduce the spacing and indentation of lines of poetry when it publishes, and the intricate way Karl's later poems are arranged across the page has been lost in my excerpts. Take the time to track the sampled poems down and read them in full - they're worth the effort, whatever reservations The Pander's young reviewer might have improvised in an effort to sound more informed than he was...

CK Stead. Straw into Gold: Poems New and Selected. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1997.

In the 1950s and '60s CK Stead produced carefully patterned, conservative lyric poems; in the early '70s innovative, fiercely idiosyncratic pieces began to appear above his name. This mid-career 'switch' has been the focus of most of the critical attention Stead's poetry has so far received, with the result that little attention has been paid to the continuities and correspondences that are equally clear in Straw into Gold. Consider these excerpts:

Heavy, flat down the rain comes, and is taken
Still by the mothering grass ignorant of time;
The leaves of the lemon tree wax, each separately shaken,
And enclosing rock stands form, too tall to climb.

And a partridge in a poetry.
Not collar-edge Coal-ridge
Not bodle air Bo-dlaire
Get it right
Make it new
And forget Les du Mal-


he say

'Poetry - she's made wiv woids.'

Juxtaposing this stanza from the 1950s with a passage from the '70s one is, of course, struck first by the formal contrasts. The careful meter and thunderous full rhymes of 'Elements', the oldest poem in Straw into Gold, and the ragged lines and colloquial rhythms of 'Quesada', a long poem Stead published in 1975, might have com from two completely different writers. And yet there is a peculiar self-consciousness which informs both the heavy-handed symbolism of 'Elements' and the jokey allusions Stead uses in an apparent attempt to justify the rambling, ambiguous nature of 'Quesada'.

This nervous self-consciousness might be seen as damaging both the traditional and the innovative poems in Straw into Gold. 'Elements' is flawed by Stead's infliction of a too-obvious meaning on a collection of resonant, ambiguous lines:

Sky is hard in which the hawk hangs fire

Lines like this do not need to be bolstered by the hackneyed interpretive symbols in the last stanza of 'Elements'. Nor do the mocking obliquities of 'Quesada' need Stead's mock-comic excuses and clarifications.

Stead seems driven to rationalise and thereby explain away whatever appears ambiguous or incongruous in his poems. Political and literary pronouncements and autobiographical self-indulgence add to the contextualising static that vitiates so much of Straw into Gold. Stead is an unconvincing tub-thumper: his subtle, cynical critic's brain must rebel against the solemn repetition of home truths. Many of the political pronouncements in Straw into Gold are simply embarrassing:

the mean masters of destruction
the mealy mouths that abet them
the don't figure among the unemployed
there's work for them always

On the positive side, one should however stress the travel poems and translations which are such wlecome features of Straw into Gold. The travel poems, in particular, provide Stead with a way of escaping his compulsion to justify and explain. In 'Yes, TS' and the sequence 'Paris', geography provides a base (or a series of bases) from which Stead launches a series of wide-ranging imaginative forays. With its oblique angles of observation and frequent referential leaps, 'Yes, TS' captures the feelings of confusion and dislocation modern international travel creates. By taking this subject, Stead is able to abstain from the rants and annotations that mar other parts of Straw into Gold. He seems, finally, to be enjoying hismelf:

In style
in a foreign city
in blue cotton pyjamas
you could die here

Ostensibly a journal recording Stead's wanderings in the Northern Hemisphere in 1980, 'Yes, TS' is a rich assemblage of quotes, jokes, bawdy anecdotes, allusions (TS Eliot is joined by everyone from Matisse to Reagan), along with evocations of places Stead may or may not have actually visited. The poem's tone is exuberant:

(Hey God
dis poet
will ya!)

Sadly, only the first five pages of this long work are included in Straw into Gold. Poetry-lovers will have to scour second-hand bookshops for the full-length version included in Stead's 1982 volume Geographies.

Stead has produced many loose translations of poems by Catullus. Keeping the basic structure and tone of each original still leaves him free to inflict his wit and (rather playful) scholarship on Catullus' evocations of bad love and good sex in late Republican Rome. He cannot resist putting bits and pieces of contemporary New Zealand into each poem. The lengths Stead will go to in order to find new ways of expressing Catullus' frustration with his wayward Clodia have to be read to be believed:

Tell her she's known to her 300 loveless lovers
as the scrum machine.
Tell her
Catullus loves her
as the lone daisy
the Masport mower

Like 'Yes, TS' and 'Paris', the Catullus translations are a triumph. Most of the forty new poems which conclude Straw into Gold lean on Stead's status as one of New Zealand's senior men of letters. They can be read as gruff epistles from the retsired academic turned successful novelist and freelance sage. In the best of these anaemic poems Stead talks understatedly about subjects he knows well, like book publishing and the ethics of translation. The inevitable takes on biculturalism are less subtle, and less successful:

'Whooooooah! The treedee!'
It's a shibboleth
I tell him
a jackup that went wrong.

These are the unambitious poems of an old man confident of his achievement and happy with the place he occupies in New Zealand literature. They lack the energy and generosity of the best poems in Straw into Gold.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A sea change

I've been offline for a week, and only have a minute now, but I wanted to paste up this fine poster (click to enlarge it), which has been produced by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's San Francisco and Oakland locals. Members of both locals are going on strike this May Day to protest the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

In my Anzac Day post I talked about the way that the First World War saw the eventual radicalisation of large numbers of people who had initially been patriotic and pro-war. The recent history of the ILWU is an interesting study in the same dynamic. Like our wharfies and seamen, the US longshoremen have a long history of trade union militancy and progressive stances on important political issues. The weakening of the trade union movement and the left in the 1990s meant that some of that tradition had been lost by 2001, when the union slid from understandable outrage at the 9/11 attacks into vociferous support for Bush's invasion of Afghanistan.

When they took strike action against the threat of casualisation in 2002, West Coast ILWU members soon found that their union's support for Bush's foreign policy had won them no favours from the White House. Alarmed at the prospect of gridlock at busy Californian ports, Bush invoked the McCarthy-era Taft-Hartley Act, which allows the breaking of strikes for reasons of 'national security', and sent in the army against the ILWU.

In the aftermath of this disaster, there appears to have been a sea change in the attitudes of the ILWU rank and file towards Bush's foreign policy. The union opposed the invasion of Iraq, and its San Francisco and Oakland locals have been bastions of the US Labor Against the War organisation, which has highlighted repression of the Iraqi labour movement and brought Iraqi union leaders on speaking tours to the US.

I remember handing out Anti Imperialist Coalition leaflets calling for solidarity with the ILWU against Bush back in 2002, at the same time as that pillar of the left Chris Trotter was using his access to the mass media to attack our little group as 'anti-American' and to defend Bush's War of Terror as an unavoidable response to 9/11 which no sensible person could ever oppose. It's nice to see how some things have changed. The pity is that the radicalisation inside the ILWU hasn't yet been mirrored across the US population, or for that matter the Kiwi population, which seems to find the occupation of Tibet by a distant government more objectionable than its own government's material support for theocracy and terrorist bombs in Afghanistan.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Richard Taylor will be in real trouble

if these people ever get their way.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The other side of the medal

Auckland museum - Auckland War Memorial Museum, I should say - is the focal point for the biggest Anzac Day commemoration in this part of the country, so it's no surprise that museum staff have been busy these last few weeks preparing a programme of displays and talks about New Zealand's long history of involvement in overseas wars.

In November the museum commemorates Armistice Day, which marks the end of World War One, and staff have been asked to submit ideas for some sort of presentation covering that conflict. I figure other folks will have the Gallipoli and Somme angles pretty well covered, so I've submitted a document which emphasises the strong opposition to the war that existed inside New Zealand. Most Kiwis are well aware of what happened in the Dardanelles, and of what the Maori Battalion was, but few know about the big anti-conscription movement back home during World War One, or about the iwi who drove Maui Pomare and Apirana Ngata to distraction by refusing all invitations to exhibit their fighting prowess in the trenches of Europe and Asia Minor.

In many countries, the outbreak of World War One was greeted with great enthusiasm, and men and women volunteered for service in large numbers. As the bloody conflict dragged on, though, the supply of volunteers declined, and a desire for peace grew. Conscription was introduced in many places to keep the supply of troops flowing to the front. But opposition to the war continued to grow in most countries, and in 1917and 1918 it led to the series of protests, mutinies, and revolutions which did much to bring the conflict to a close.

In Australia, repeated attempts to introduce conscription were defeated by public referenda. Perhaps mindful of the experience across the Tasman, the Massey government decided to bypass the voters and ram a conscription law through parliament in 1916. The law was welcomed by some New Zealanders, but it was unpopular with a number of Maori iwi, with parts of the labour movement, and with some religious organisations. Many members of these communities refused the call to conscription, and thus came into conflict with the New Zealand state. Some were imprisoned, others went into hiding, and a few died because they refused to fight.

Tainui and Tuhoe were the most important anti-conscription iwi. Both felt that they had no obligation to fight for the New Zealand state which had first invaded and then confiscated their lands in the nineteenth century. In his biography of Princess Te Puea, Michael King describes how Waikato and the other peoples of Tainui defied conscription:

While the parliamentarians were activating the Maori traditions of Tumatauenga, god of war, Te Puea was reinforcing those of Tawhiao, prophet of peace. And Waikato's refusal to serve became a growing embarrassment to the government... in February 1918, Te Puea sent word to all waikato and Maniapoto men of conscriptional age to join her at Te Paina [a marae in Mangatawhiri, near Mercer]...Te Puea's message was 'If we are to die, let us die together'...

Police invaded Te Paina and dragged away the conscriptable men who had gathered there. Of the 550 Tainui called up for service, only 74 ever wore a uniform, and not one served overseas. One hundred and eleven Tainui men were imprisoned, and four died of influenza because of the poor conditions they endured in captivity.

The Tuhoe prophet and political leader Rua Kenana refused to recognise the authority of the government in Wellington, and discouraged his followers from enlisting in the army. In his biography of Rua, Peter Webster reports an opinion of the war that the prophet gave in 1915:

Oh yes, we have got a King in England...He no good, he bad. The Germans win. The Germans win...

In 1916 armed police invaded the settlement Rua had established at Maungapohatu, deep in the Ureweras. After a gunbattle two of Rua's followers lay dead, including Rua's son Toko. Rua himself was sent to Mt Eden Prison.

The most famous Pakeha to be imprisoned for opposing World War One was Harry Holland, the first leader of the Labour Party. Like many left-wing members of the trade union movement, Holland believed that the war was essentially a fight between competing groups of capitalists. He argued that New Zealand workers had no reason to kill German or Turkish workers, and that they would be better off uniting and creating a new international order based on socialism. Similar views inspired the revolutions in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1918.

In his study of Holland, PJ O'Farrell describes the sufferings the man endured in prison:

He was very glad to leave prison. It had depressed him...his cell was too cold for comfortable reading. It was often too cold for sleep. The monotony was unbearable.

The experiences of the Tainui and Tuhoe peoples and of Pakeha like Harry Holland remind us that not all Kiwis believed that World War One was a heroic 'war to end all wars'. On Anzac Day and Armistice Day we should not forget New Zealand's fighters for peace.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

'For Christ's sake, let us have something from you'

[Last night, listening to Muzzlehatch complain about the travails of editing a literary journal, I thought of a long and slightly silly passage of my PhD thesis. The passage should really have been dropped from the final draft of the thesis, and will certainly have to be dropped if I revise the thesis into a book, but I have a soft spot for it, if only because it puts the sufferings of most editors I know into perspective.

The passage occurs in the third chapter of my thesis, shortly after a discussion of the history of the 'New Left' established in Britain in 1956. After appearing set to sweep all before it, the dynamic but chaotic movement, which included refugees from the Stalinist Communist Party, idealistic students, and members of the burgeoning Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, went into a tailspin in the early '60s.

EP Thompson and his mates had occupied leadership positions in the outfit, but after a financial crisis and a series of complicated political rows they found themselves ousted from the Board that oversaw the publication of the New Left Review by a ruthless Old Etonian named Perry Anderson. After Anderson and his circle sealed their control of the Review and the other institutions of the movement, some of Thompson's allies attempted to regroup around a new journal...]

A fortnight after the final, sad meeting of the New Left Board, Ralph Miliband circulated a memo describing plans to set up a new ‘Socialist Annual’. In a letter he sent to John Saville along with the memo, Miliband announced that he was ‘done with New Left Review and such for good’. Miliband told Saville about a phone conversation with EP Thompson, in which the old co-editor of New Reasoner declined an invitation to share responsibility for the new annual.

In her memoir about the early days of the Socialist Register, Miliband’s widow Marion Kozak claimed that Thompson refused the co-editorship because of his political differences with Miliband and Saville. It is likely, though, that was more than one reason for Thompson’s lack of enthusiasm. The collapse of the first New Left and the disintegration of relations with the Anderson circle had hit Thompson hard. Miliband suggested to Saville that Thompson’s ‘present attitude may be due, and he hints at this himself, to a general dispiritedness’.

Shortly after his conversation with Miliband, Thompson wrote a long letter to both his comrades to elaborate on his refusal to co-edit the new ‘Socialist Annual’. Thompson began by explaining that he was preoccupied with preparing his long-overdue history book for publication. Thompson’s enthusiasm for scholarship seemed connected to a weariness with politics:

There is a chance of autumn publication, and I now feel that I would like it out, so that I can be known as a historian and not just as the wrecker of the New Left which is my current persona.

But Thompson complicated his refusal of co-editorship by suggesting that the editorial board of the New Reasoner ought to be reconvened, with a view to refounding the journal in 1964. Thompson wanted the journal to be a quarterly, and mentioned that he has talked with former Board member Ken Alexander, who was very much in favour of refounding the journal. ‘I have got the habit of journals’, Thompson explained, ‘and find it hard to imagine not having one as a base’.

Saville and Miliband were unenthusiastic about reviving the New Reasoner. Saville wrote to Thompson to say that he was ‘not keen to sit through more Board meetings’. Undeterred, Thompson wrote Saville a long, excited letter on the 25th of March – a little over a week after his phone conversation with Miliband – to give more details about his plan to revive the New Reasoner. Thompson wanted the old editorial board to meet soon in Sheffield. He had made contact with some Italian socialists, and believed that they could be involved in the journal. Stuart Hall, the old editor of the New Left Review, could be won away from Anderson’s circle.

On the same day, Thompson wrote to Miliband to repeat many of his proposals. At the bottom of his letter, though, he again claimed that he was ‘too busy’ to be involved in Saville and Miliband’s new journal. At the end of March John Saville wrote again to Thompson to explain that he did not think the revival of the New Reasoner was practical. With a certain weariness, Saville warned Thompson that ‘yards of talk’ could not be turned into a new quarterly journal. Miliband was equally sceptical of Thompson’s proposals. ‘Edward may be in for more disappointments’ he wrote to Saville on the 24th of March. ‘It is clear that we must proceed without him.’ There is no evidence that Thompson ever succeeded in reconvening the old New Reasoner editorial board.

Miliband and Saville may have found Thompson a frustrating interlocutor, but they had great respect for his scholarship and writing, and they still hoped to secure a contribution from him for the first issue of their ‘Socialist Annual’, which would soon be rechristened the Socialist Register. In May, though, Saville reported to Miliband that Thompson was reluctant to contribute. The only material he could immediately offer was a collection of Luddite documents he had acquired while researching The Making of the English Working Class. ‘I am not keen on Ludd docs’, Saville told Miliband.

Miliband himself asked Thompson to review the posthumous collection of essays by C Wright Mills called Power and Politics. At the end of August, though, he had to report to Saville that Thompson had refused the assignment, on the ‘absurd’ grounds that ‘he is not a sociologist’. When Saville suggested that their new journal should review The Making of the English Working Class, Miliband’s reply showed some exasperation:

I should be very glad to have...Thompson’s book reviewed...but you deal with him: I think he has displayed remarkably little goodwill since the first letter he wrote...I was annoyed with his preemptory rejection of the idea that he should review the Mills essays.

At the beginning of October, though, Thompson wrote to Miliband asking whether the Register would be interested in some ‘Notes Toward the Definition of Class’. Thompson explained that he wanted to differentiate ‘historical’ from ‘sociological’ notions of class, and to ‘challenge over-rigid contemporary formulations’. He imagined that his ‘Notes’ would include a discussion of Mills. ‘I think Edward is now rather narked not be in on the Annual’, Miliband reported to Saville.

On the 17th of November Thompson wrote a long letter to Miliband, in which he tried to explain what he might be able to write for the Register. Thompson explained that he had been spending most of his free time immersed in historical scholarship:

I am very much preoccupied with history...All the ’56 onwards period left little time for history, and for two years or so I have been catching up like mad.

Thompson claimed that he had not wanted to write about Mills because of his immersion in history. (This explanation is unconvincing, because Thompson had in fact reviewed Mills’ posthumous essays for the journal Peace News, shortly after rejecting Miliband’s request.) Thompson explained that his notion of an essay on class stemmed from some of the business The Making of the English Working Class had left unfinished:

My book became more pretentious as it got bigger; and at the end of it I convinced myself (in the five-week euphoria which I usually have after completing something big, which is usually followed by a five or fifteen year nausea) that I had actually said something about class in general, and not just something about England in 1790-1832. In fact I wrote an introduction making just this claim and cocking snooks at named and unnamed sociologists. And now I rather feel that I shall have to hold the ground, and put up some theoretical hurdles around it to keep the buggers out.

Thompson also outlined his plan for an essay on ‘the Marxist tradition’:

It is an attempt to discriminate between Marxism as a dogma; Marxism as a self-sufficient theoretical corpus which contains within itself the means to self-correction and self-validation; and Marxism as a ‘tradition’. I reject the first two...

At the end of his letter, though, Thompson appears to once more withdraw his goodwill:

I am sorry to be such a nuisance: I can’t tell you which essay you’ll get or whether you’ll get one at all.

After discussions with Miliband, Saville wrote to Thompson to explain that space in the forthcoming issue was limited, and that an essay on class would not be an easy thematic fit. Thompson’s other suggestion, though, ‘would fit nicely with our English section’. Miliband and Saville set aside a few pages for Thompson’s essay on ‘The Marxist Tradition’, and Thompson apparently arranged to give the text to Miliband on a visit to London he would be making in the second week of November. On the eleventh of that month, though, Thompson had to write Miliband an apologetic letter:

I’m afraid I’m going to come down to London empty-handed...I have a dozen false starts, and some stuff in drafts, but it really isn’t coming out...

Thompson did send a manuscript to Miliband, but it was hardly what his long-suffering friend had been hoping for:

I am enclosing one of the only things I have ready-made in my drawer, a story which I wrote four or five years ago. But it is very slight. Anyway, you don’t want stories. And if you did, you could get much better ones. Doris [Lessing], for example...

Thompson’s story was called ‘Cassino’, and was probably related to a novel he had tried to write ‘in 1947 or 1948’ about his experiences in the most famous battle of the Italian campaign (a fragment of the novel would be published as ‘Overture to Cassino’ in the British edition of the 1985 collection of political and literary writing he called The Heavy Dancers). It is hard to imagine how the most imaginative editor could have fitted Thompson’s story into an ‘English section’ in the first Socialist Register. Miliband’s response to Thompson’s submission showed considerable restraint:

The only criticism I would venture [of ‘Cassino’] is that it is perhaps over-didactic. However, it would obviously be incongruous as the only piece of imaginative writing in the Register...

Aware of the gaping hole in his journal, Miliband urged Thompson to turn urgently to a new subject:

What about stretching the anniversary section backwards, and have us do something on 1814. Select some topic or event, happening in or around that year...I feel sure you could do [it] in the available time – preferably also not just an extract from the book: you must have material which even you did not manage to incorporate into it...But for Christ’s sake, let us have something from you.

Miliband’s words remind us of a schoolmaster struggling to find an essay topic that will interest a bright but recalcitrant pupil. Sadly for the master, Thompson showed no sign of taking up the latest suggested subject. ‘Personally, I think our missing contributors are SHITS’ Miliband wrote to Saville at the end of November, when it had become clear that the first issue of the Socialist Register would appear without a contribution by EP Thompson.

[Thompson would eventually contribute his famous essay 'The Peculiarities of the English' to the second issue of the Register, after giving Miliband and Saville a few more stressful months...]

Friday, April 18, 2008


Has the legendary 'man in the panama hat' resurfaced in our discussion thread? I hope so.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

'A positive example for budding proletarian artists'

Maoism and reviewing seem to have been the dominant subjects of discussion on this blog over the past couple of days, so I thought I might as well post some excerpts from this masterpiece of film criticism produced by the Maoist International Movement. It really does raise the bar:

Disney and Pixar's "A Bug's Life" has as good side and a bad side. The good side is that it portrays the successful collective struggle of the apparently weak oppressed and exploited (in this case, an ant colony) against the apparently strong oppressors and exploiters (in this case, a band of grasshoppers). So it could be used as a parable about the struggle against u.$. imperialism. The bad side is that it never directly ties its oppressors (the grasshoppers) to the biggest oppressors in the real world, the imperialists.

Amerikan imperialism has always cloaked itself in the rhetoric of freedom and the struggle against oppression, while actually denying the broad masses any true freedom and oppressing entire peoples around the globe. So very few audiences will recognize themselves or their government in the grasshoppers of "A Bug's Life" and take home the lesson that they should be fighting against Amerikan imperialism...

The grasshoppers demand tribute from the ants crops every year (feudalism); the ants bear this tribute because of the armed force of the grasshoppers; there is debate among the ants about whether to stand up against the grasshoppers at all and, once they decide to fight, how to do it; in this debate we see the importance both of leadership and of winning over the majority of the oppressed; the head grasshopper decides to make an example of the one ant with a rebellious attitude; the ants turn their seeming tactical weaknesses into strengths and defeat the grasshoppers; etc. etc. At the end of the film, we see that defeats of the grasshoppers and of superstition have allowed the ants to adopt a mechanical method of harvesting grain, leading to prosperity.

Art is not the same as science or politics. MIM believes that art should popularize scientific truths (and spur scientific thinking) using artistic forms. In this sense "A Bug's Life" is a positive example for budding proletarian artists...

Does that bring back the memories, for Comrade Taylor?

Monday, April 14, 2008

A reject review

I was asked to review Alice Tawhai's book for a local literary journal - it didn't quite meet their taste in reviews (maybe because I talk about the editors' lack of enthusiasm for Luminous or maybe it just wasn't up to scratch) and so I publish it here:

Alice Tawhai, Luminous

Wellington: Huia Publishers, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-86969-293-3 RRP $35.00

Reviewed by Skyler

Reviewing this book was daunting for me. I will explain: I am surrounded by people who are hardened practitioners in the art of writing and this is my first published review. I was also given this book because no one else was particularly interested in reviewing it; I think the conversation went, “want to review this book? I’m sure you’d be more sympathetic than I would be. It’s pretty overwritten and clichéd”. Well, where do you go from there?

Luminous is Alice Tawhai’s second collection of short stories. Her first collection Festival of Miracles, also published by Huia, was named as one of The Listener’s best books for 2005. Tawhai’s fascination with colour is notable throughout Luminous. In all her stories colour, light and contrast are described sensuously and images are repeated. I was intrigued to read recently that Tawhai’s interests include photography and art, and that travel to India (a country saturated by colour and contrast) is high on her wish list for the future.

‘Butterflies and Moths’ is a story about Glory, a middle-aged woman reflecting back on her life. She is trying to find herself again, as an individual apart from her children and husband. She believes she was robbed of opportunity and choice when she was young. Glory feels stifled by motherhood and marriage, but she finds an escape in nature:

She came to a field full of thistles topped with dark-pink flowers. A million-shower of white cabbage butterflies hung above them, dislodging each other; floating like fragments of torn-up love letters thrown into the air. Oh, thought Glory. The world is beautiful, and I’m swimming in it…She waded through the fields, Swedes now, with fat, white tops sticking out above the stony soil, inviting her to trip over them in her steel-capped boots. White butterflies still fluttered around her like confetti, although there were fewer of them now.

While digging for fossils Glory discovers a baby’s skeleton. The discovery causes Glory to remember a time when she felt like killing her own baby. Here is the final paragraph of ‘Buterflies and Moths’:

It was the fifth time since Glory had gone to bed, and it had been going on night after night. ‘Shut the bloody baby up!’ Charlie had shouted. ‘I need some sleep! I’ve got work in the morning!’ And Glory had picked Marama up and shaken her hard, just to try and make her stop. But she had only cried louder. And Glory quite clearly remembered how there, in the dimness, she had wished her own baby dead.

But I thought that Tawhai’s prose undermined Glory’s stark story. It felt like Tawhai was trying too hard, using too many adjectives. A better story is ‘The Golden Lotus’, which is told through the eyes of Ming, a young girl working in her family’s restaurant. It is set during one evening in the restaurant and follows the people there and the conversations Ming overhears:

Today, the birch tree outside in the car park was dropping golden leaves all over the asphalt, and it made Ming think of the firework called Golden Rain which spat gold sparks into the Indian ink of the night…She showed a lady in dark shorts and bright pink gumboots, fluorescent against her brown legs, to a table. It was Maori families who came in for the buffet, an all-you-can-eat special, including coffee and dessert.

In this story Tawhai sets the scene expertly: her description of the Chinese restaurant and its patrons transported me to my teenage years in West Auckland. ‘The Golden Lotus’ could easily do a thriving business in Ranui or Westgate:

The kids were all flocking around the tank of fish in the centre of the room. It was filled with carp, and Ming knew that there were eight orange ones for good luck, and one black one to absorb bad luck if it came. The water was deep green, and it had somehow managed to trap sunlight from the outside world within its depths. The fish swam to the side of the glass, nuzzling it with their lips where the children touched it with their fingers. Fish kisses.

‘You kids get over here, or you’ll miss out,’ said one of the women. A fat, golden kitten on the counter waved a mechanical paw up and down near to where they were all helping themselves. One of its big round Western cat eyes was winking above its fat pussy-cat checks. Its eyelids and claws were stained red and green over gold. ‘It looks like a bloody transvestite!’ said one of the men, and got a laugh from the other adults. Ming wondered what he was talking about. Working in the restaurant she heard a lot of things that she didn’t understand.

My parents moved our family to West Auckland when I was fifteen; at the time I thought they had a made a very uncool decision. With the sharp tongue of a fifteen year-old I used to poke fun at the “Westies” who sported mullets, wore tight black jeans and scruffy T-shirts advertising Jack Daniels, listened to Metallica, watched rugby league, and drank Lion Red. It was all very alien to the teenager used to hanging out in “trendy" central Auckland suburbs. After spending the best part of my youth in “Westieland” I now embrace my own ‘Westiness’ (minus the outer trappings - though I do own some black jeans and have been told I have a semi-mullet!). For me, then, ‘The Golden Lotus’ made for interesting reading. Its setting was readily recognisable, but it also made me feel a little uncomfortable. The tone of ‘The Golden Lotus’ is light but its theme is dark:

My cousin’s having trouble with her one already. Her daughter’s only eleven years old, and she’s started sleeping with married men…If that was my kid, I’d boot her arse. I told my cousin, “You’ve spoilt that girl.” They let her do anything she wants. Wearing too much lipstick, running off while they’re out, smoking down by the shops. “Send her to me,” I said. “If she tries going out anywhere to get up to that sort of shit, I’ll give her the bash, and that’ll teach her. It won’t take her long to learn!”

Tawhai gives us a punch line at the end of her story:

High above her head a golden lotus had been painted onto a bright red background. Its petals had been carefully parted to show the central heart of the flower. And it was perfect and whole and untouched, as all little girls should be.

Many of Tawhai’s stories have themes of sex and self-loathing: they are full of secrets, loneliness and alienation. The best of them avoid sentimentality and feature a sensuous but controlled language. Luminous is a perfect title for Tawhai’s book. Her stories are vivid snapshots of ordinary lives; reading them one after the other is like using a Victorian stereoptic card viewer. My literary friends would be foolish to totally shun this book. Tawhai’s writing borders on the clichéd but it has moments of honesty and beauty. I look forward to seeing how she matures as a writer.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Chinese embarrassed by deal with New Zealand?

Here's an interesting bit of news which hasn't circulated a great deal on the internet:

Chinese Dissidents Criticise Free Trade Agreement with 'Racist, Imperialist' New Zealand

Chinese dissidents are condemning the recent Free Trade Agreement between their country and New Zealand - and at least one senior figure within China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to share their views.

Li Ho, a veteran spokesman for China's underground Real Socialism Party, has called the Free Trade Agreement a 'shameful sellout' which will blacken China's international reputation and help New Zealand's government divert attention away from its role in the oppression of indigenous peoples.

'China is a Third World country with a proud history of fighting and defeating imperialist invaders', Li pointed out. 'We fought the British in the nineteenth century, and in the twentieth century we fought the Japanese and the Americans. We inspired and assisted the struggles against white rule in South Africa, Rhodesia, Malaya, and Indonesia, at a time when the Western nations backed the racists. China has never supported an American or European war of aggression', Li pointed out. 'Now, though, we're jumping into bed with the government of a country that was founded on invasion and colonisation, and has a long and ongoing history of supporting Western imperialism'.

Li noted that the New Zealand state only established itself by destroying independent Maori nations in the Waikato, Parihaka, and the Ureweras in a series of nineteenth century wars. In the twentieth century, Maori faced many forms of institutional discrimination: in 1907 their traditional religion was outlawed, for decades their language was banned in schools, and until the 1960s they were forbidden to sit on juries when white people were being tried. New Zealand has also contributed troops to a long list of wars of neo-colonial aggression overseas. 'They fought against the peoples of Korea, Malaya, Borneo, and Vietnam', Li pointed out.

Today, New Zealand troops are part of the bloody and unpopular US-led occupation of Afghanistan, and play a leading role in the occupation of East Timor, Li noted.

At home, the Clark government has reinforced the legacy of the wars of the nineteenth century by 'launching new armed raids on the Tuhoe people' and 'quashing the rule of law and stripping rights to the seabed and foreshore from Maori', Li said. According to Li, New Zealand wants to 'use this agreement to boost its prestige in the Third World' by associating itself with 'the proud anti-imperialist record of China'.

Li was also worried about the role of Chinese companies in the Rugby World Cup scheduled to be held in New Zealand in 2011. 'The rugby balls used in this event will probably be manufactured in China', he said. 'Do we really want to give material support to an event that will be used by the New Zealand government to promote a false sense of national unity that disguises the ongoing oppression of a colonised people?' Li called on the Chinese people 'not to forget New Zealand's racist and imperialist history'.

Li Ho's opposition of the Free Trade Agreement has been echoed by Bin Dao, a senior bureaucrat in China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Bin, a controversial figure who regularly represents China at glitzy international summits, says that he will not support the Free Trade Agreement because 'it compromises Chinese sovereignty' by allowing in cheap New Zealand products that could undermine the burgeoining dairy industry in northern Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. Critics are calling on Bin to resign over his remarks, which are widely seen to be unacceptably undiplomatc.

Food for thought?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Comfortably Numb

I finished. Actually, I handed in my PhD thesis almost a week ago, at five minutes to five on the afternoon of Friday, the fourth of April, 2008 Anno Domini, more than five and a half years after beginning the thing. It took me longer to write 110,000 words about EP Thompson than it took the United States of America to win World War Two, and almost as long as it took The Stone Roses to record their second album. I don't think my thesis cost as much as the war, let alone the Roses' Second Coming, but to be sure you'd have to ask my parents, and the University of Auckland's Sociology Department, which saw its PhD bonuses dry up as the years crept on.

Over the past week I've been experiencing what the wily Olivia Macassey has called 'post-doctoral numbness symdrome'. This numbness induces a curious sort of paralysis. In its final stages, especially, a PhD thesis concentrates the mind wonderfully, eliminating the need to make all sorts of decisions. Friends learn not to drop around with beer and DVDs, and workmates stop calling and asking for shifts. Even small, formerly useful chores, like the washing of clothes, the paying of bills, the putting out of rubbish, and the writing of polemics against obscure left-wing groups are sacrificed, as time is allocated ever more ruthlessly to essential tasks like the alphabetising of a bibliography or the hunt for split infinitives.

Once the thesis is prised from one's hands by the understanding but firm secretary at the Graduate Centre, then all sorts of awkward demands pose themselves with a new urgency. Neighbours complain about the smell from the overflowing bin; friends demand proof of a social life; and power companies send letters with numbers higher than any Bradman score printed in big black letters after a dollars sign. There are too many things to do, and doing nothing seems like the only sensible option.

It's not as though I was expecting to finish my thesis. I remember reading a JG Ballard story about a boy who makes a kite, then tries to catch a train out of the city where he lives so that he can fly it in the country sky. The super-efficient subway of the twenty-third century takes him right around the world, until he recognises the apartments and offices of the suburb where he lives, and realises that there is no way out of the city. Sensible grown-ups try with increasing success to convince him that the city has always existed, and that the place with hedges and fields is a fantasy promulgated by backward-looking troublemakers. Over the last year, especially, my thesis had begun to seem like Ballard's endless city, or like the endless novel that the narrator of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys seems doomed to write:

Motivation, inspiration was not the problem...I had too much to write: too many fine and miserable buildings to construct and streets to name and clock towers to set chiming...

It was my long-suffering supervisor who led me, blinking and complaining, out of the labyrinth of footnotes and supporting paragraphs by insisting that the thesis be submitted before he retired. And, luckily, the submission process seems designed to thwart the sort of destructive perfectionism to which I was falling victim. It demands that the thesis be delivered in soft cover format and weeded carefully by the supervisor and his co-markers, before it is bound with leather and deemed unalterable. Somebody else gets to find the last of those typos.

As post-doctoral numbness syndrome begins to abate I'm getting back into work at the Auckland museum, which has been hit by a 'restructuring' programme over the past month and badly needs a stronger union branch. I'm hoping to throw some energy in that direction, and also to get back into the literary scene, which seems to have managed quite nicely without me, if the thriving business at Alien and the book launches being scheduled by Titus are anything to go by. See you in the real world.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A streetfighter retires to the country

When he died suddenly last month Roger Fox left behind a grieving family, a wide circle of shocked friends and comrades, and a nine year-old black and white cat called Mannheim. I've made this post because a number of people have asked me about the fate of the moggie since the death of his owner.

I adopted Mannheim the kitten after I found him wandering about outside the University of Auckland library one cold night back in 2000 (I'd just borrowed a book by the Anglo-Austrian sociologist Karl Mannheim). I didn't actually have a place where I could keep the critter, so he bounced from one friend's home to another for several years.

In half a dozen different inner city streets, Mannheim learned to scrap with cats twice his size for control of strategic assets like sofas and verandahs. A sojourn on my parents' farm ended when the vet warned my mother that the feisty newcomer was driving her well-bred cats insane. 'Either that moggie goes, or the others must be put out of their misery', he warned in an especially grave voice.

Mannheim has never met another cat he doesn't want to scratch or bite, but he gets on well with humans, and it was Roger who was able to give him a stable home. With his authority uncontested by other felines, 'Heimy' thrived under Roger's erratic but affectionate care. For his part, Roger came to treasure a cat he had only reluctantly agreed to house.

Mannheim's fondness for sleeping in late appealed to Roger, who was often rendered drowsy in the morning by his lithium. Visitors to the bungalow at 18 Mulgan St, Windsor Heights reported finding man and cat stretched out side by side on the balcony, soaking up the late morning sun. When they felt more energetic, Roger and Mannheim would walk to the corner dairy together. Mannheim would wait politely outside, hoping for a piece of salami, while Roger bought the paper and discussed its front page with the dairy owner.

I remember Roger informing me one day that Mannheim had become a Buddhist. 'He listened very carefully while I recited the two hundred and twelve precepts', Roger reported. 'He was flicking his tail, too. I really do think he understood.' Mannheim became familiar to the scores of Busshists and political activists who visited Roger's home for cups of lukewarm tea and lectures on the evils of the Third Way and the virtues of the middle way.

Roger's fondness for Mannheim sometimes expressed itself in a morbid fear for the tough tomcat's health. As the cat's original owner, I was the recipient of many breathless reports on his supposed health problems. Roger would phone to complain that Mannheim must be gravely ill, because 'he's eating everything I feed him, and still wants more', or that he must be 'profoundly upset about something', because he had broken one of those two hundred and twelve precepts by slaying and eating a sparrow. Roger was a very familiar face at the Mount Roskill veterinary clinic, and I would regularly receive e mails like this:

re: cat

Dear Scott,
The cat has got something definitely wrong with one of his ears and he's going to need about thirty dollars worth of drops for it I think (I have to check this but I'm pretty sure that was the approximate figure) I have already spent $40 on consultation, $20 of which was the money you gave me. I'm hoping to get the medicine soon because whatever is wrong seems to be bothering him quite a bit although his overall condition seems to have improved since he had a tooth extracted.

I will hear from you,

It was sad to have to visit Roger's house on the day of his funeral and find Mannheim moping about meowing outside. Skyler and I tried to settle the scrapper at our place, but he was soon up to his old tricks, and I found myself breaking up cat brawls on the footpath of our street at two in the morning. Mannheim always looked pooped, and I felt like a boxing ref stopping a bout early for health reasons.

Luckily for me, and for the cats in my neighbourhood, the lovely Anne came to the rescue and offered Mannheim a new home on the seventy-acre farm she runs just south of Auckland. Anne recently lost her own cat, so Mannheim will have the run of her historic farmhouse and the undulating paddocks that surround it, as long as he can avoid picking fights with the odd retired racehorse or stud bull. When Skyler and I left him at Anne's, Mannheim was sitting on a windowsill purring, after downing a saucer of unpasteurised milk. I figure the old streetfighter has earned himself a retirement in the country.

Friday, April 04, 2008

One for Peter Brown

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


I'm giving a seminar. Check out the Freudian slip in that abstract.