Thursday, August 28, 2008

The art of selling your soul

There's a venerable tradition of artists, musicians and other creative types selling their souls for supernatural talents and/or commercial success. The poet Robert Graves went cap in hand to Diana, the rather crotchety old Goddess of the Moon, and begged her for inspiration, even at the cost of his soul. Robert Johnson is remembered as one of the most extraordinary blues guitarists of all time, but the price he had to pay, if you believe the legend echoed in songs like 'Hellhound on My Trail' and 'Me and the Devil Blues', was the gifting of his soul to the Prince of Darkness.

Graves' gradual descent into a madness disguised as senility and Johnson's violent death at a shockingly young age ought to point towards the dangers of soul-selling, but they haven't been enough, it seems, to deter Bill Direen, the Kiwi music legend and prolific poet and novelist who has been a frequent subject of dicussion on this blog. A few days ago, for reasons that are still obscure, to me at least, Bill decided to offer his soul for sale. Robert Johnson rendeszvoused with the Lord of Flies at a lonely Mississippi crossroads, and Robert Grves wandered about howling through the nights of Majorca looking for Diana, but Bill decided he'd prefer meet potential buyers online, and thus advertised his 'Soul in very good condition' on the ever-popular Trademe website.

If the following e mail is any indication, though, Bill's plans have run into a bureaucratic brick wall:

Dear William,

Your listing for SOUL IN V. GOOD CONDITION Listing no. 173064528 has been withdrawn. It's come to our attention that you may not be in possession of one or more following items you're selling on Trade Me:

All items listed on our site must be in the seller's physical possession at the time they create their listing.

Our listing policies are explained in more detail on the following page:

To learn more about your obligations as a seller please review our terms and conditions:

Please ensure that you're in physical possession of all items before you list them on Trade Me. We appreciate your cooperation with this request.

If you have any questions or require further clarification of this policy please let us know.


Trade Me Customer Support

As someone who has seen Bill Direen bang out his achingly beautiful '80s Flying Nun classic 'Alien' to a packed house at the Masonic Hotel at three in the morning, I have no doubt that the man has has soul. For that reason, I'm happy for punters, human and supernatural alike, to place their bids in the comments box under this post. I just Bill knows what he's letting himself in for...


Whoever can guess the point that this anonymouse commenter was trying to make about Matisse and Pt Chevalier gets a case of Vailima:

PUNKS are too self involved to consider fair play. They already think THEY are the ones that have been slighted and are only playing OLD TESTAMENT PAY BACK! Excuses for every bad move they make! NEVER their fault because someone else made them do it. Usually “the MAN” (lmao) well there is a MAN is there somewhere I’m sure but MOST are just PUNK BOYS! (and Victimized/Insecure Women) PUNK is a general term in my book for young, ignorant, rude borderline criminal immature kids.


Monday, August 25, 2008

Reasons for learning Moriori

Public discourse around this year's Maori Language Week seemed remarkably upbeat, with veteran activists talking about how far efforts to save te reo have come, and number crunchers telling us that Maori and Pakeha alike are learning the language (or, in my case, desperately trying to learn a few words) in larger numbers. Even Shortland Street, that arbiter of the Kiwi cultural mainstream, got into the act, running Maori subtitles for one of its episodes.

Moriori cultural activists are aiming to emulate some of the achievements of their Maori cousins. Back in June the government made a one-off grant of six million dollars to a trust set up to help the Moriori people research and promote their history and language. The Te Keke Tura Moriori Identity Trust was the idea of the Hokotehi Moriori Trust, which is the organisation that represents the tchakat henu (that's tangata whenua in Maori, and indigenous people in English) of Rekohu and Rangiauria (Chatham and Pitt Islands). The grant was accompanied by an acknowledgement of the suffering that Moriori endured at the hands of both the Crown and the two Taranaki iwi who invaded Rekohu and Rangiauria in 1835.

Over at the Television New Zealand website there is an interesting discussion about the new grant with lawyer and historian Maui Solomon, who is perhaps the most famous living Moriori. Solomon explains that the money will help Moriori scholars make proper use of the records of their language that were written down in the second half of the nineteenth century by a series of Pakeha ethnologists. The most notable of these scholars was Alexander Shand, a long-time resident of the Chathams whose research was guided by the Moriori elder Hiruwaru Tapu. Shand published a number of studies of Moriori culture and history, and spent many years working on a full-scale dictionary of the language. In 1910, though, he lost his life in a house fire that also destroyed his unpublished manuscripts. Other scholars published partial Moriori vocabularies, and in 2001 Rhys Richards synthesised a lot of earlier texts in his Reo Moriori o ngā karapuna o Rekohu (The Moriori language of the ancestors on the Chatham Islands).

By the time the Moriori language was being written down, the people who spoke it had suffered decades of slavery at the hands of Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Awa. Low birth rates and gradual assimilation to Maori culture meant that, even after the end of slavery, the Moriori language continued to decline. Tommy Solomon, who had become famous for being the last full-blooded Moriori by the time he died in 1933, spoke Maori rather than Moriori.

The 'Moriori renaissance' of the last quarter century has brought a renewed interest in the Moriori language. Words and phrases began to used to be used on ceremonial occasions; when members of the Waitangi Tribunal visited Rekohu and Rangiauria to conduct research in the nineties, for instance, they were welcomed to the islands in Moriori. Nevertheless, Maui Solomon says there is today only one person who can speak Moriori fluently, plus a few more who can karakia and chant in the tongue. It must be lonesome to be the sole speaker of a language.

Can reo Moriori be fully reanimated? The example of Cornish, which was extinct for well over one hundred years but now has a couple of thousand speakers, would seem to suggest that the task is not impossible. And there are reasons why non-Moriori should care whether reo Moriori is resurrected in the twenty-first century. The language may well be a unique source of information about many aspects of human history in the Pacific.

About three thousand years ago people spread east from the edges of the Pacific into Samoa, Tonga, and smaller islands of the region known today as Western Polynesia. Over a thousand years a distinctive culture solidified there, and in the first centuries AD the great wave of exploration and settlement that would eventually reach Rapa Nui, Hawaii and Aotearoa began. The new Polynesian territories shared a family of languages known as Eastern Polynesian. Hawaiian, Tahitian, Maori, and Moriori are all part of this family, which is itself a part of the larger Polynesian family, and beyond that the Austronesian family.

Only after following helpful winds and ocean currents as far east as Rapa Nui and the coast of South America did the Polynesians make the difficult journey south to the land we know today as Aotearoa. We do not know the exact origin of the first settlers of these islands, but we can say that they came from somewhere in central east Polynesia, a region that contains the southern Cook Islands, the Austral, Society, and Marquesas Islands, and Pitcairn Island.

Moriori are the descendants of a group of very early Maori who left Aotearoa about seven hundred years ago, perhaps in an attempt to make a return journey to the Cooks or Austral Islands, and discovered Rekohu and Rangiauria. There was little or no contact between Aotearoa and the Chathams for many hundreds of years, so Moriori were not influenced by the culture that Maori iwi developed in Aotearoa until the invasion of 1835. Even after the invasion, their language was little altered by the borrowing of foreign words.

Moriori therefore probably contains an exceptional number of words which hark back to the 'proto-Polynesian' tongue which was spoken three thousand years ago, on the western edge of the Pacific. Moriori contains other words which were developed during the settlement of central Eastern Polynesia - words which early Maori would have brought to Aotearoa, but which have in many cases fallen out of use. Words like namu (mosquito) take us back from the cool kopi forests of Rekohu to the heat and haze of central Polynesia. Moriori can help scholars understand ancient Polynesian society, and the pattern and timing of Polynesian migration.

Moriori might perhaps be compared to the Icelandic language, which preserves much of the old Norse tongue in which the medieval sagas of the Vikings were written. Swedes and Norwegians cannot understand the texts of those sagas today, because their languages have changed a great deal, but Icelanders can still read the stories with ease.

Maui Solomon is realistic about the prospects for reviving the Moriori language, saying that he hopes to see a few score speakers to emerge over the next couple of decades. Every movement needs a vanguard, and the world will be a richer place if Moriori is spoken and studied in the twenty-first century.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Matisse in Pt Chev

I spotted these on a footpath near the end of Point Chevalier the other day. They reminded me of that bit of dialogue between the ageing art dealer and the primary school teacer in Six Degrees of Separation, the only watchable Will Smith movie yet devised:

"Why are all your students geniuses?
Look at the first grade - blotches of green
and black. The third grade - camouflage.
But your grade, the second grade...

Matisses, every one.
You've made my child a Matisse. Let me study with you.
Let me into the second grade.
What is your secret?"

"I don't have any secret. I just know when
to take their drawings away from them."

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Usain Bolt is the new Jesse Owens

In 1936, Adolf Hitler did everything he could to turn the Berlin Olympics into a celebration of Nazism. The architecture of the Olympic stadium and other events centres, the absurd Wagnerian opera of the opening ceremony, and the ubiquity of the swastika and other Nazi symbols were all intended to drive home the message that the Aryan race was physically and mentally superior to all other breeds of human. Hitler wanted the towering, blond-haired members of the German athletics team to confirm their superiority on the race track, by trouncing rivals from lesser races.

Unfortunately for Hitler, an African American named Jesse Owens left the athletes of the 'master race' in the dust, winning four gold medals in the Berlin Olmpic stadium. Hitler was infuriated, and Owens became a hero to anti-fascists. Are Hitler's Olympics merely a dark chapter in the history of sport, or do they have some parrallels in the present? Scottish socialist blogger Andy Newman has some relevant thoughts:

It is instructive that the sports which exemplify the Olympics are those based upon direct comparative measurement: for example, athletics, swimming, weightlifting, cycling, skiing and boxing. The competition is between those who can best sublimate their human individuality and transform their body into a machine for producing the most efficient performance...human beings are subordinated to maximising the outputs of their own bodies, even at the cost of their long term health or mental well being...

The Olympics - and even more so the Tour de France – are dominated by performance enhancing drugs, and the effective collusion by the sports’ governing bodies.

What is more, the training infrastructure and the development of sports science is much more advanced in the developed economies of the imperialist powers. So every four years the Olympics gives an opportunity for the great powers to ideologically demonstrate that their world dominance is underpinned by an implicit biological and racial superiority. This is one of the impetuses behind the prestige of holding the games – an orgy of conspicuous consumption that validates the host nation as a major power.

For me, the dehumanisation of the sportsman - his or her conversion into a mere machine designed to turn out records - is symbolised by the case of Michael Phelps. Like the hulking blond monsters that raced for Hitler in 1936, Phelps seems more like an ideal type than a real human being. Phelps was born with an unusual body - he has an exceptionally long torso, and very short legs - which enables him to move quickly in the water, and for a decade now he has devoted himself obsessively to exploiting his natural advantage. 'All I'm doing is eating, swimming, and sleeping', he admitted in one poolside interview. Phelps' enormous diet has attracted a great deal of amused interest in the media, but few journalists have noted the sheer joylessness with which the man chomps down his daily intake of toasties, omletes, and pizzas. For Phelps, food is simply fuel. To enjoy a meal would be to lose focus and training time. The body is a machine which must be maintained with the maximum efficiency. Phelps' progress towards a record eight gold medals has been as well-planned and relentless as a military campaign. Unsurprisingly, it has failed to move many observers.

Over the last week, a very different athlete has grabbed a lot of attention that might have gone to Phelps. The young Jamaican Usain Bolt has won the one hundred and two hundred metres sprints, and set world record times in both. It is not only Bolt's results but the way they were achieved which has caused excitement. Bolt laughed, joked and even danced about before his races, and he began to celebrate his victories even before he reached the finishing line. A full twenty metres before the end of the final of the one hundred metre sprint, for instance, Bolt slowed down, dropped his arms, looked around and smiled. It was as though he was mocking the solemn sports coaches and commentators who urge athletes to extract every last fraction of effort from their bodies.

Bolt appears to have little time for the sports world that produced the monster that is Michael Phelps. As a teenager, he was offered a lucrative scholarship by a number of US universities impressed by his natural abilities. It is common, of course, for schools, universities, and professional sports franchises in wealthy countries to poach talented youngsters from poorer countries. New Zealand rugby relies increasingly for its health on young men lured from Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji by the promise of education, money, and a career path.

Bolt refused every offer of a scholarship, saying that he was happy living in Jamaica. He has also resisted attempts by sports coaches to make his approach to training and running more 'scientific'. The Guardian offered an account of Bolt's race day 'preparation' for the one metres final:

Fast man, fast food. "I never had breakfast," said the Jamaican as he recalled the start of his greatest day. "I woke up around eleven, I watched television and then I had some [chicken] nuggets for lunch. I went back to my room, I slept for two hours, I went back for some more nuggets and came to the track."

Bolt's attitude to his sport has horrified all the right people. They sputter about 'indiscipline' and wonder wistfully how fast Bolt could go 'if he really tried'. Bolt himself, though, doesn't seem to care. 'I just wanted to win, I didn't care about the time', he said after the hundred metres final. Like Jesse Owens in 1936, Usain Bolt offers a two-fingered salute to those who want to dehumanise sport.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A golden lesson?

It was beginning to seem like the whole country had constipation. In bars, in cafes, in sports clubs and in living rooms Kiwis sat with furrowed brows and clenched fists, grunting whenever another rider lost contact with his horse, groaning whenever the opposition put another soccer ball or hockey puck into the back of the net. Was New Zealand destined not to win a single Olympic medal? Could the dismal record the All Blacks carved out last month have been an augury?

After Saturday night's surge of medals, brows unfurrowed, faces lost their unhealthy purple tingle, fists unclenched into applauding palms, and the cliche-mongers of the media pronounced the salvation of New Zealand. After rower Mahi Drysdale battled Beijing belly to wear a vomit-stained bronze medal, the New Zealand Herald crowed that the spirit of 'national toughness' had not died with Edmund Hillary. With his willingness to rise above adversity and leave his body, or rather his breakfast, on the battlefield, Drysdale was, the Herald reckoned, a model for young Kiwis raised in an era of emasculating, anti-competitive
'political correctness'.

One of the Herald's gang of civic-minded letter writers took up the same theme with reference to the Evers-Swindell twins, who overcame a couple of pumped-up Germans and Peter Montgomery's senile TV commentary to narrowly win their second successive rowing gold. Contrasting the broad sweet smiles and bulging biceps of the Evers-Swindell girls with the bulging boobs of the naughty girls Steve Crow wants to parade down Queen Street, the Herald's correspondent insisted that 'here we have two different models of womanhood'. Apparently the Evers-Swindells hark back to an older, better world, where girls knew how to sew before they knew how to spell, and only visited sinful places like Queen St to watch the Santa Parade or cheer the return of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

Before we turn Drysdale and the Evers-Swindells into symbols of the sort of good old New Zealand Brian Tamaki and Garth George are forever eulogising, though, we ought to consider where all three rowers went to school. Drysdale and the Evers-Swindells didn't spend their formative years at an ultra-conservative, militarised institution like the one John Graham created at Auckland Boys Grammar; nor did they even experience the rough and ready pleasures of a proudly old-fashioned school somewhere in New Zealand's rural heartland.

Drysdale and the Evers-Swindells are all proud ex-students of Taikura Rudolf Steiner School in Hastings. The school was founded more than half a century ago, though it was only in 2000 that the word Taikura was added to its name. As the school's website
, the meanings of the new word illuminate the philosophy of Steiner education:

heartwood of trees with red wood;
currents (of influence, of emotion, of sensibility)

streams (of consciousness, of philosophy)

ocean tides

tides of life

red glow

treasured possession

sanctum of learning

I don't know whether that little incantation would appeal to John Graham, Martin Deaker, or any of the other red-faced schoolmaster-coaches who are always complaining about the 'softness' of young New Zealanders, and the lack of 'guts and grits' shown by young Kiwi sportsmen and women. For his part, Rudolf Steiner would probably have been quite uncomfortable at the barracks-like school John Graham ran at Auckland Grammar in a desperate effort to turn out 'hard' sportspeople with 'a will to win'.

Steiner, a stern critic of the ideological and cultural conformity demanded by
modern industrial society, set up schools that were intended not to churn out robots for the factory or the football team, but to 'educate the whole child', by making the emotions and imagination of pupils as important as their reading and arithmetic skills.

In a fine post on this blog, Skyler described her experiences at one of New Zealand's handful of Steiner schools:

The teachers at my school worked hard to produce well-rounded individuals - people who could learn from life as well as books. Field trips to beaches and forests and school plays were as important as exams. The arts were taken as seriously as the sciences, and imagination was celebrated rather than stifled. Ours was a 'hands on' way of learning: we were encouraged to do our own research, rather than simply swallow facts and figures. I remember learning about history and English literature not by sitting in class taking down a teacher's monologue, but by touring the North Island with our class putting on a play about Nazism and the resistance to it in continental Europe during World War Two. While studying Indian Mythology we heard stories, learnt music, poetry, cooked Indian food and learnt traditional dancing and some of the language, and put on another play. As twelve year olds studying geology we went camping and caving at Waitomo.

Our school would acknowledge the rhythm of the year by celebrating the change of seasons. In autumn we would dress up in autumnal colours, have a harvest table of food we would give to charity, sing songs and eat a meal we had cooked together. For winter we built a bonfire, made lanterns, went for a lantern walk at night and sang winter songs – very magical! These celebrations gave us a sense of stability and connectedness to the world around us.

The Nazis rushed to close Steiner's schools down, calling them breeding grounds for weak and undisciplined citizens. Today, Steiner's detractors sometimes still use similar language. You won't see a Steiner school first XV taking out a regional schools' title anytime soon. Sport is a part of Steiner education, but it is often not even competitive, let alone militarised and commercialised. Twenty year-old fifth year seventh-formers aren't paid to skip classes play rugby at any Steiner school.

Isn't it remarkable, though, that a single, small Steiner school has delivered New Zealand such Olympic riches? If The Republic of Steiner could appear on the medal board, it would stand above a sports superpower like Argentina, which has so far only won a single bronze at Beijing. Could it be that the strength of character that helped Drysdale overcome acute pain to take bronze, and enabled the Evers-Swindells to come from behind to win a tight race, is acquired more easily in the relaxed, anti-authoritarian, creative atmosphere of a Steiner school? Perhaps the narrow, high-pressure, hierachical education that many sportspeople marked as 'promising' now get at mainstream Kiwi schools has something to with the ability of our rugby players and our cricketers to so often steal defeat from the jaws of victory at the business ends of sports tournaments? Perhaps Rudolf Steiner has something to teach the sports coaches and headmasters of this country?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Rongotute: more than a story?

Last week I posted about the mysterious skull which was the subject of a recent coroner's report in the Wairarapa. Experts who have examined the skull believe it belonged to a Caucasian woman, and radiocarbon tests have indicated that she was alive in the middle of the eighteenth century.

Understandably, many historians and anthropologists are reluctant to accept the Wairarapa skull as proof positive that Europeans were living in the interior of the North Island of New Zealand, decades before the arrival of Captain Cook. One person who has ventured beyond scepticism is Gareth Winter, the archivist at Masterton museum, where the skull is being held. As the British Daily Telegraph reports, Winter believes that the skull may have something to with a Maori oral tradition:

Mr Winter said that Captain Cook recorded, in the log of his second journey to New Zealand aboard the Resolution in 1772-5, a tale told to him by a Maori chief of a ship having been shipwrecked many years earlier. Cook said the Maori told him that they given the ship's captain the name "Rongotute".

Early missionaries wrote of hearing the same story from Maori, who related that the survivors of the ship had been killed and eaten when they came ashore. They said that many Maori had subsequently died in an epidemic, possibly as a result of exposure to a newly introduced infection from Europe. Historians believed that the most likely site of such a shipwreck was Cape Palliser, the windswept southern-most point of North Island.

The story that Winter describes is discussed in detail in a paper Rhys Richards published in 1993 in the Journal of the Polynesian Society under the title 'Rongotute, Stivers, and 'Other Visitors' to New Zealand 'Before Capitain Cook'. Richards has published widely on New Zealand and Pacific history and cultures - I examined his latest publication, Manu Moriori, for the Scoop Review of Books a couple of months ago - and his study of the Rongotute story should serve as a model for anyone considering the
more shadowy regions of history. Where the proponents of Celtic or Phoenician settlement of these islands typically leap to the wildest of conclusions from the flimsiest of grounds, Richards is very careful not to make more than he should of the story of Rongotutute and the the tantalising pieces of evidence that might support it.

Richards begins his argument by noting that the southern part of the North Island seems to have been depopulated in the late eighteenth century; as a result, the region succumbed relatively easily to a series of invasions by peoples from the north during the Musket Wars of the early nineteenth century. The Rongotute story was told repeatedly to Captain Cook by peoples living in the Cook Strait area, but it was also relayed decades later to the Reverend Richard Taylor by the Maori who lived in the Wanganui region of the North Island.

The seas around Cape Palliser are extremely wild, and have claimed many ships over the years. Rhys Richards quotes nineteenth century reports of old wrecks sticking out of the surf near the Cape. He also notes widespread reports of smallpox epidemics in the southern North Island in the late eighteenth century. Richards points out that the Maori word for smallpox - rewarewa - was subsequently used to describe any epidemic, and even lesser illnesses like the head cold.

Did a ship run aground at Cape Palliser sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century? Richards' paper considers whether it is possible that any European ship could have come close to New Zealand shores in the century and a quarter between the fleeting visit of Abel Tasman and Cook's 'discovery' of the country. He discusses the bulky, poorly-designed trading ships known as 'East-Indiamen', which sailed from Europe around the Cape of Good Hope, and then blew east on the roaring forties, before trying steering north to their destinations in Southeast Asia. Is it possible, Richards asks, that one of these craft might have been unable to steer north, and might have blown all the way to New Zealand on the roaring forties? A similar scenario might bring a trading ship to New Zealand's shores via Cape Horn, at the bottom of South America. Eighteenth century British vessels, especially, often carried fine red blankets to trade, and the Rongotute legend mentions that red blankets were taken from the wreck of the strange ship.

Richards accepts that the evidence for Rongotute is less than definitive, but he still feels it needs to be taken seriously:

It is all too easy to dismiss...stories of pre-Cook visits to New Zealand...but an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so the only valid verdicts are 'not proven', and these, of course, are very different conclusions from 'non-existent' seems credible to me that, before 1770, a foreign ship introduced to New Zealand a disease that depopulated the southern half of the North Island...

What is needed now is probably not so much an intensive re-assessment of the existing fragmentary sources, on which there may never be a meeting of minds, but, rather, a determined multidisciplinary search to see whether any additional 'sources' of any kind at all can be brought in from anywhere to illuminate further these shadowy margins of New Zealand's earliest Pakeha history
[JPS 102, 1993, pg 34].

Will the Wairarapa skull end up bolstering Richards' theory, as Gareth Winters apparently thinks it might? There are other, more straightforward explanations for the object. I think it is quite possible that the date given for the skull is innaccurate - radiocarbon is good for dating objects over millenia but can easily be out by a hundred years or so - or that the object was brought to New Zealand and used as a keepsake by some Wairarapa settler. Perhaps it held a candle in the lonely study of a nineteenth century cottage? Perhaps the children who inherited the keepsake thought it morbid, and chucked in a nearby river?

Occam's razor isn't infallible, though, and Winter and Richards deserve to be taken seriously. If they're on the right track, then there are a few textbooks that will have to be rewritten...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The aesthetics of mockery

There is something sublimely awful about the 'bird's nest' stadium which hosted the protracted opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics. The nest motif reminds us of the delicacy and sensitivity to the forms and rhythms of the natural world which are such a strength of so much traditional Chinese poetry, painting, and architecture. The size of the stadium, though, makes a mockery of the motif - one imagines a flock of Apache helicopters or one of Darth Vader's ungainly black patrol ships alighting from the nest, instead of the graceful birds of T'ang dynasty poems.

In much the same way, the opening ceremony diminished the event it was supposed to celebrate. The militarised yet absurdly sentimental spectacle was a sort of nightmarish fusion of a Stalinist mass rally and a Disneyland film, and thus undoubtledly appealed to the corporate 'communists' who have run China since D'eng Xiaoping rose to power at the end of the '70s. It was a relief when the Olympic athletes were finally allowed to enter the stadium, and their unscripted ebullience went some way towards the salvaging the night.

New Zealand has a rather different design tradition from China - where the architects of the Middle Kingdom have a reputation for gracefully harnessing chi, we have always been a nation of proudly rough and ready shed builders. And the new, Olympic-sized Westfield Albany megmall on Auckland's North Shore mocks our noble tradition just as surely as Beijing's bird's nest mocks the work of Chinese aesthetes. Where the bird's nest blows a traditional Chinese motif out of all proportion, the mall at Albany takes the good old-fashioned Kiwi backyard shed and blows it up into a Ballardian nightmare.

The smell of chemicals, the absence of windows, and the headache-coloured walls might seem charming when you're visiting the place where your mate stores his homebrew, or tinkers with his motorbike, or paints her masterpieces, but they quickly become oppressive when you're hundreds of metres away from the nearest egress, and desperate for a breath of fresher air, or simply for some proof that the outside world has not ceased to exist.

In John Boorman's essential but half-forgotten film Zardoz - it's the one where Sean Connery runs around for three hours in a red jockstrap playing a character called Zed the Destroyer - a utopian society of immortals ages its artists and dissidents until they become senile, and forces them to live ad infinitum in a dilapidated old folks' home in the middle of the woods, where they pass time by playing in a shambolic brass band. After gratefully discovering an fire exit at the back of the giant shed at Albany, I came upon a brass band of old men playing to a non-existent audience. Something in their bearing reminded me of the band in Zardoz.

I forgot my desire to flee far from the mall and hung about for half an hour, thinking, for the first five minutes at least, that the band was tuning up, and that a crowd would soon gather to applaud politely and drop useless ten cent pieces in a tattered tophat. Nobody appeared, though, to keep me company in the audience. Even more strangely, perhaps, no member of the band ever made eye contact with the sole member of the crowd, even when he began taking photos. The band did not pause for a moment between its songs, which sounded to my inexpert ears like frayed and over-long versions - strictly instrumental, of course - of minor Brat Pack hits from the late 1950s. I also thought I heard the theme from Dad's Army at one point. When I finally fled the scene, it was out of an obscure sense of embarrassment, rather than mere boredom.

Why do these old men play? Who, if anyone, pays them? Are they performing some strange penance? Do the owners of the monster shed pay them to perform outside an obscure fire exit where no sensible person ever loiters, simply so that twenty-first century capitalism's contempt for all artists and all aesthetic standards can be celebrated? Has anyone else seen the old men play? Were my camera and I merely hallucinating?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Window reading

Auckland's Parson's Bookshop marked national poetry week by filling its windows with books and chapbooks of verse produced by small presses. I have a somewhat utilitarian approach to books - I'm interested in getting to the contents, and tend to forget about little things like cover design, page layout, illustrations, font choice, and so on - but I was impressed by the artistry on display in the windows of Parson's.

Regular readers of this blog might remember my post about Jack Ross' Papyri: the chapbook was launched by Soapbox Press last year, on a boozy night that almost ended in the evaporation of Richard Taylor.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Wairarapa skull and the 'white tangata whenua'

Over the past year or so I've had a few cracks at the self-styled scholars who believe that Maori were beaten to Aotearoa by Europeans, or Chinese, or Egyptians, or Indians, or half a dozen other peoples who had no documented contact with these islands in prehistoric times.

I became aware of the variety and relative popularity of alternative theories of Kiwi prehistory while working on an Information Desk in the Maori-Pacific section of Auckland museum. Often, the historical understanding of museum visitors was severely affected by their subscription to one or another extravagant theory that denied the real past of these islands and the status of Maori as the tangata whenua of this country. It's hard to have a useful discussion about the Kaitaia lintelpiece and other masterpieces of Maori carving, for instance, when your interlocutor believes that those carvings were made by Phoenicians or Celts, and then stolen by Maori. It's hard to talk about the meaning of the Treaty of Waitangi with somebody who has been convinced by a well-designed but utterly flakey website that Maori were the third or fourth people to arrive on these shores.

Perhaps the most aggressive proponents of an alternative theory of Kiwi prehistory are those folks who believe that Celts settled these islands in ancient times, only to be conquered by the Maori, who appropriated much of their material culture. The best-known advocate for the Celts is Martin Doutre, an American-born immigrant to New Zealand who has published a massive and whimsical book called Ancient Celtic New Zealand and who maintains a very odd website with the same name. Doutre spends his weekends hiking around the backblocks of New Zealand, discovering the ruins of ancient Celtic observatories - 'Stonehenges of the South Pacific' - where other people see random collections of rocks.

Like a number of advocates of alternative, incredible versions of New Zealand prehistory, Doutre has links with the extreme right-wing end of the political spectrum. His name pops up frequently at the website of the One New Zealand Foundation, a small but very grumpy organisation set up to oppose the Treaty of Waitangi, state support for the Maori language and, it seeems, all forms of biculturalism. Doutre has written admiring letters to the neo-Nazi pseudo-historian David Irving, and he also appears to have connections to the kookiest parts of the '9/11 Truth' movement. Kerry Bolton, one of this country's best-known neo-Nazis and the former theorist for the National Front, has published a book on New Zealand prehistory which makes much the same arguments as Doutre. Bolton has lately become a contributor to the One New Zealand Foundation's website.

In The Politics of Nostalgia, his fine study of the far right in New Zealand, Paul Spoonley argued that one of the main barriers to fascist politics here was the status of the Maori people as tangata whenua. Pakeha Kiwis could not, Spoonley suggested, imitate the 'We were here first', 'Keep our country white' rhetoric that had helped make neo-Nazism popular amongst certain sections of modern European societies.

The theory that the ancient Celts settled New Zealand first before being conquered by Maori can be seen as an attempt to dispose of the impediment to fascist propaganda that Spoonley noted. For the likes of Doutre, the One New Zealand Foundation, and Bolton, the assertion that an ancient European people - or the 'white tangata whenua', as Bolton calls them - were the first to settle these islands is enough to discredit Maori nationalism and the ideology of biculturalism. If Maori only took control of these islands as a result of a 'genocide' of Europeans and if taonga of Maori culture like the magnificent carvings at Auckland museum were actually produced by Europeans, then Maori lose their mana, and seem actually to deserve the treatment which was meted out to them by colonisers' armies and goverments.

Doutre and a number of his fellow thinkers employ a paranoid theory with its roots in anti-semitism to explain the apparent lack of evidence for their claims about New Zealand prehistory. They argue that a massive conspiracy run by a sinister minority buries the proof that a massive ancient Celtic civilisation existed on these islands. It seems that some sort of special government squad, rather like the sinister and secret forces in The X Files, is always ready to descend on excavations and confiscate Celtic bones and artefacts. Caves are sealed up and forests declared off-limits whenever Doutre and his co-thinkers get too close to the truth. Advocates for the theory of an ancient Celtic settlement of New Zealand wash up on this blog occasionally, to accuse me of being a spokesman for the vast Maori-led conspiracy to suppress Celtic history.

Now, though, it seems that the conspiracy might be losing its grip, and the heavy veil drawn over the truth about New Zealand history might have lifted. How else can a paranoid pseudo-historian explain the recent investigation into the skull discovered several years ago beside a river in the Wairarapa? Experts have decided that the skull probably belonged to a middle-aged European woman, and radiocarbon tests have suggested that the woman was alive in 1742, twenty-seven years before Captain Cook made it to New Zealand and almost one hundred years before the start of the European settlement of the Wairarapa. Yesterday at least one of the advocates of the prehistoric Celts was using a comments box at this blog to celebrate the vindication of his theory:

Ha ha Maps better stop posting you anti-white racist and bitter halfcaste you have no answer to this skull which proves that whites were first in NZ

Some historians and Maori leaders are clearly apprehensive about the uses that might be made of the skull. Wairarapa Maori leader Haami Te Whaiti thinks that 'the crypto-historians will have field day with this'. Kerry Howe, the Massey University historian who wrote a book about false theories of the first settlement of New Zealand, has the same worry.

Neither Te Whaiti nor Howe has been willing to concede that a European was living in the Wairarapa in 1742. This is not evidence of a conspiracy by a monolithic intellectual establishment, but an entirely appropriate display of caution. There is no evidence, besides the recently-analysed skull, for a European presence anywhere in New Zealand in 1742.

The fact that the skull belonged to a woman, and was discovered some distance from the sea on the eastern side of the country, only makes it more of an anomaly. If the skull of a man was found lying in the sands of some West Coast beach and dated to 1742 it might possibly be explained away as the remains of a whaler or adventurer whose ship was wrecked on New Zealand shores. What, though, would a woman be doing in the inland Wairarapa at that date?

Martin Doutre and his friends undoubtedly believe that they have the answer to the puzzle posed by the Wairarapa skull. Has their golden hour of recogniton and credibility really arrived? I don't think so: one swallow does not make a summer, and one skull dated to the eighteenth century hardly constitutes reasonable evidence that a massive and advanced Celtic civilisation existed on these islands many hundreds of years earlier. If Celts really did establish a southern civilisation here, then we ought to be stumbling on skeletons, buried roads, walls, and so on every hour of every day. Not even the most elaborate conspiracy of radical Maori, elitist academics, and politically correct bureacuracy could conceal the truth from the eyes of Kiwis.

I'll post some more reasonable possible interpretations for the Wairarapa skull on the weekend, if I can manage to find a computer. In the meantime, it's worth remembering that some of the self-appointed experts rushing to acclaim the skull as proof for their theories have pretty unpleasant political motivations.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Maps will return soon

Just a quick notice to say that Maps hasn't been able to blog much lately, due to a broken down laptop and not being 100% well. He wants to assure everyone he'll be back in action soon.

In the meantime these events look interesting:

POETRY LIVE - Guest Poet: Jack Ross

Tuesday 5th August 2008
8 pm onwards
@ the Classic Studio
Upstairs at 321 Queen Street

Indy Film Screening: Logging in West Papua (Auckland)

6pm Tuesday August 5 @ Clubspace, AUSA Quad,
off Alfred & Princess Streets.
Auckland University.
Entry by koha.

Solid Territory Album Launch 08/08/08

When: Friday 8th of August
Where: RISING SUN - 373 Karangahape Rd
Cost: Koha

Marc Rambeau
Memories of China

Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - Saturday, 16 August 2008. Head over to the Lane Gallery in Auckland, and view Memories of China an exhibition by Marc Rambeau.

The Story of Stuff

Wednesday, October 1, 2008 at 8:00pm
Saturday, October 4, 2008 at 10:00pm

BackLit Production’s latest dance creation, The Story of Stuff transforms the Concert Chamber into a world of extravagant desire.

The Story of Stuff is told on multiple levels where energetic contemporary dance combines with intricately designed costumes and an eclectic mix of locally crafted music.